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The Origin of Memorial Day

The Origin of Memorial Day

An F-4 static display stands in the 142nd Wing's Memorial Park at Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. John Hughel)

PORTLAND, Ore. --

Memorial Day has traditionally been a day to remember; honoring those who have fallen in battle and to recall the legacy of those throughout history who have made significant contributions and sacrifice. We know it as a solemn observance, but many Americans know little about Memorial Day’s origins.

On May 30, 1868, a proclamation was issued by General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the “Grand Army of the Republic”—a Union veterans group, which called for a nation-wide day of commemoration for Soldiers killed during the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, for how the many graves of fallen Civil War Soldiers were decorated with flowers, flags and wreaths, the observance occurred every May 30th from 1868 through 1970. It would come to be known as Memorial Day. It was moved to the last Monday of May and expanded to include all wars when it officially became a federal holiday in 1971. While many states and cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, the town of Waterloo, NY was given the official seal of approval from the U.S. Government in 1966.

Poppy flowers have long been a symbol of sleep, peace, and death. The bright red flowers began growing in the dreary battle-damaged fields of northern France and Flanders (northern Belgium) around 1915. It remains a symbol of remembrance to this day.

Two poems were inspired by the red poppy flowers associated with Decoration Day. In Flanders Field by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who said the piece “gives voice to the soldiers who had been killed in battle and lay buried beneath the poppy-covered grounds”. Another poem came later, We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael, a Georgia teacher who started a campaign to make the poppy flower a “symbol of tribute for all who died in war”.

Many have asked what is the difference between the three days dedicated to military honors and remembrance; Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Simply put, Armed Forces Day is on the third Saturday of each May, honoring those who are currently serving in the U.S. military; Memorial Day is on the last Monday of each May, remembering those who died while serving in the U.S. military; and Veterans Day is on the 11th day of each November, honoring all those who served in the U.S. military.

Memorial Day traditions have evolved over the years, inspiring acts of patriotic remembrance so that no one’s forgotten for their contribution and sacrifice. We want to remember and reflect on the service and sacrifice of our own 142d Wing members on Memorial Day as well.

While Memorial Day 2020 events have been impacted due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the spirit of remembrance should remain alive. Keeping with social distancing rules and remaining respectful of those being honored, all Americans are encouraged to fly their nation’s flag as well as pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time on Monday, May 25, 2020.