Remembering ... On a Day Once Known as 'Decoration Day'
Sailor and woman at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Washington, DC, May 1943. Photographer, John Collier, 1931 - 1992. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
By Julia Sneden
It is Memorial Day weekend, and everyone I see seems to say "Happy Memorial Day." I suppose having a holiday is a cheerful thing, but anyone who has ever observed the long rows of white stones in the veterans’ cemeteries scattered across America, or seen photos of the rows and rows of crosses in Normandy, must surely pause before using the word "Happy." Somehow, this day of remembrance seems to have segued into a weekend at the beach, or a backyard wienie roast.
If you pause to think about it, perhaps those activities in themselves are not an unreasonable way to offer tribute to all those young men and women who have died in service of their country. It is thanks to them that the rest of us are able to enjoy the beaches and the backyards and even the wienies that so mark our good times. It's right that we pause to remember the cost, and also right to look back and remember that they were often youngsters who fought as much for their own remembered good times as they did for that anomalous thing called "my country."
But honor and remember them we must, in whatever way we can, and I suspect that for many of our military, a beach and a wienie would be just fine.
On Memorial Day, I particularly honor three of the members of my extended family who served in the military during World War II, when I was somewhere between six and nine years old:
• Bill Sill, USN (in the Pacific)
• Allan Willard Burleson (ARMY, in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge)
• Hugh L. Burleson (ARMY, army of occupation in Japan)
To me, they were just my big cousins, glamorous in their uniforms — so brave, so tall, so handsome — and it while I knew they were going off to danger, I never for a moment considered that they might not come back.
Bill Sill was a distant relative. His grandmother, I think, was a childhood pen-pal of my Great Aunt Martha. Bill lived in New England, and when the Navy sent him west to the 'Point of Embarkation' that was San Francisco, his mother or grandmother wrote to Aunt Martha, who lived with us, and said she was giving him our address and phone number. As I recall it, he telephoned from San Francisco while he was on leave, waiting for assignment, and my mother invited him to come and stay with us for a weekend. We lived several miles south of the city and out of our town, atop a steep hill, and in those gas-rationed days, getting down to the train depot used lots of gas ration stamps, so she told Bill the time that my father's commuter train was due into San Carlos, and said that if he could get to that station by then, he should look for a dark-haired man who would be getting into a '32 Plymouth jalopy (his commuter car that we called "Prob'ly," because Probably it wouldn't last out the war. It didn't.)
So my poor father, at the end of an exhausting day of work in San Bruno, exited the train, walked to his car (not many in the tiny parking lot), and found a young sailor leaning on the hood, with a big grin, hand extended, saying "Cousin Hank?"
Bill came home with my dad, and stayed for a couple of days, that first time, enjoying some home cooking and playing catch with my older brother. As for me, I developed an instant case of hero worship, and (at all of 7 years old) fell hard for him. He stayed in touch with us during his time in San Francisco, and even came back one or two times, bringing some of his friends with him.
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