The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history and because we suffered so many casualties a need existed to create national cemeteries in communities across America. Traditions developed at these cemeteries where loved ones and townspeople would gather and plant flowers and say prayers at the gravesites of veterans to honor them. It was decided that these sacrifices needed to be formally recognized so Decoration Day was created to honor the Civil War veterans who lost their lives.
Following WW1, it was determined that all veterans lost in wars should be recognized and for decades May 30th was recognized as the date for honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Decoration Day evolved into Memorial Day and in June 1968, Congress established the last Monday in May as a Federal holiday and a day of observance. It became official in 1971, and since that time, we have observed the last Monday in May as Memorial Day.
Memorial Day means different things to different people. For some, it’s a three day weekend and the start of summer vacationing. It can be a day for barbecues and getting together with friends to enjoy the long weekend. For combat veterans, it’s an entirely different and more solemn experience because we remember young men we served with in battle who were struck down in the prime of their life.
When I served as a medical aid man with Charlie Company, 1/6th, 198th Light Infantry Brigade in 1968 in Chu Lai, Vietnam, I was with the second platoon which consisted of approximately twenty-five other young guys from all parts of the U.S., for twenty-four hours a day. When you live in close quarters, out in the jungle, with a bunch of young men, you depend upon each other for virtually everything and you get to know people quickly. You learned whether these young guys joined the military or were drafted, where they came from, the names of their girlfriends and wives, their favorite songs and what they planned to do when they made it back to the world (the phrase we used for home). Because of our common circumstances, and our need to rely on one another, we bonded together in many cases stronger than than we did with our own family members back in the states.
Together, through stifling heat and humidity, for days and months at a time, we slogged through rice paddies and streams and thick jungle and up hills and mountains in search of the enemy. As we humped through these terrains, we conversed about everything under the sun but most of the time we pissed and moaned about the circumstances we found ourselves in. We complained about the terrain, the heavy ruck sack on our shoulders, the heat, our food, the leaches, filthy clothes, our leaders and anything else worthy of our contempt. Just surviving in that environment was very difficult without engagement with the enemy.
Sometimes we found the enemy, but often they found us first. And when you’re exchanging gunfire, grenades and mortars with the enemy often in close quarters, soldiers are going to get hit and suffer wounds. Some of the wounded I was able to patch up and evacuate by helicopter and they often survived. There were other who suffered mortal wounds and I could not help them despite frantically trying to do so.
When the dust settled, and we could collect our senses, we would talk about our comrade who just lost his life when an hour earlier he had been telling us a story about his girlfriend. In the early months of our Vietnam service it was very difficult for those of us inexperienced in life and death situations to come to grips with the fact that the guy who had just given you a cigarette or exchanged C-rations with you earlier that day was gone forever.
As we encountered more enemy action over a several month period we were forced because of our experiences to accept these deaths and bury them mentally so we could remain an effective fighting force. We couldn’t dwell on those deaths at that time because we couldn’t afford to do it as we had another mission to complete. We recognized the losses in a very basic way, but self survival in many cases took over and we had to move on as there was no rest for the weary.
It was only after the war, as many of us began to come to terms with the war when we were able to grieve for the guys who lost their lives in battle. We were home and safe and we had survived so we could turn our thoughts to those who hadn’t made it. And I for one, began to grieve. And as the years have gone by, I still remember them as 18-20 year old young vibrant guys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were cut down in their prime. So every Memorial Day is a solemn day for me, and many combat vets like me, because we remember the guys we lived and fought with in Vietnam who left their blood on the battlefield and perished. And we continue to grieve.
Since my blog is Viewing the War through Music, I’m attaching a link to a song I wrote which was performed and produced by Jon Statham called “On Memorial Day”. The song explains how some combat vets like me view Memorial Day. It can be accessed at: www.soundcloud.com/jim-purtell/on-memorial-day