On Monday, Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. To many, Memorial Day represents the real beginning of summer. To others, the Indianapolis 500 auto race will claim most importance. The three-day holiday overall will be a festive time, with parties, parades, and cookouts. But for those of us who remember the original purpose of the holiday, Memorial Day will be a time to honor the members of the armed forces who sacrificed their lives in battle for the United States.
Memorial Day, which was originally called Decoration Day, was established in 1868 to honor the Union dead in the recently completed Civil War. Graves of the dead soldiers were decorated with flags and flowers. May 30 was chosen as the time for this event. After a few years, the celebration was broadened to include the dead of both sides in that fratricidal war. The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries brought further expansion with the heavy casualties of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the wars in the Middle East.
In 1968, Congress established Memorial Day as a three-day Federal Holiday and set the date as the last Monday in May.
The first U.S. Navy Seabees to be honored on Memorial Day were the 272 enlisted men and 18 officers killed in WW2. The 500 Seabees killed in accidents during that war added to this total. The number of Seabees who died in the Korean War is hard to find. Amphibious Seabees served with their pontoon causeways at the invasion of Inchon and the evacuation of Wonson, the Korean War Dunkirk. No whole Seabee battalions were employed in Korea. Only detachments of Seabees operated there. But during the same time frame, a number of battalions carved an enormous airbase from the Philippines jungle at Cubi Point. This project has been called, “The largest military construction job since the Panama Canal.”
Seabees served all over the country in the Vietnam War. We built port facilities, airfields, aircraft support facilities, highways, logistics bases, firebases, hospitals, utility plants, and pipelines. Without our work, the combat forces would have had trouble operating in that undeveloped country. My recent novel, ASPHALT AND BLOOD, is dedicated to the 168 Seabees and 1 attached Marine who gave their all in the Vietnam War.
Seabees have been an essential element in the wars fought around the Persian Gulf and in Afghanistan. As in previous wars, Seabees have died there also. The latest figures I found on the Internet are 19 Seabees killed in the Gulf wars and at least 34 in Afghanistan. The war with ISIS may yet claim others.
Before firing up the grill and icing the beer for next Monday’s festivities, we should all pause for a while and reflect on the sacrifices made by our war dead. Most of them were young men who should have had many years left ahead of them. They put aside their hopes and dreams for the future to go and serve where their country needed them. The Bible says that, “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” Can less be said for those who laid down their lives for their fellow citizens?