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‘All gave something and some gave all’

SHIRLEY – In 1968, the federal government moved Memorial Day to the final Monday in May. Despite the switch, Shirley’s American Legion Post No. 183 conducted its Memorial Day ceremonies on May 30, the holiday’s traditional date since it was founded as Decoration Day in 1886.

Originally inaugurated after the Civil War to lay wreaths and flowers on the graves of Union Army casualties, Memorial Day retains the tradition today, by honoring all American military men and women who have died in all the nations’ wars and conflicts since the Revolutionary War.

Shirley Memorial Day events began with services at town churches in the morning, followed by ceremonies at local cemeteries, where war veterans’ graves were decorated with flowers. Reprising the annual schedule, ceremonies were also conducted at war memorials, where wreaths were placed at the monuments and cast into the water from the Fredonian Park bridge, in memory of Navy war veterans who died at sea.

The symbolism of these universal remembrances is important because so many who died in the service of their country never came home, living or dead. In his opening prayer, Post Chaplain Marcel Gionet touched on one of war’s enduring hardships for families of fallen heroes as he gave thanks for the freedom and opportunities their sacrifices made possible for others. Their final resting places – known and unknown – may be in Europe or beneath the sea, he said.

Following the invocation at Whiteley Park Sunday afternoon, Post Commander Bud DeCell introduced the main speaker, fellow Legion member, Vietnam Navy veteran and post historian Charles Church.

“All gave something and some gave all,” he began.

n all, 42 million American men and women have served in the military since the Revolution, and over 600,000 have died for their country, Church said. Memorial Day is a solemn remembrance of them all and stems from a tradition inaugurated in 1882. There is no proscribed national format, he said; each Legion post sets its own program. But Church said the intent is the same: remembrance of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and the values it stands for. Hopefully, it is a time to tell their stories and remember their selflessness, he said.

In 1968, the Uniform Holiday Bill set Memorial Day’s date for a specific Monday each year, Church continued, but that move may have detracted from the meaning of the holiday. In 1987, Hawaiian legislator Daniel Inouye tried to undo the change, but failed, he said. Absent a return to the original date, American Legions have proposed an unofficial compromise. “We urge a moment of silence at 3 p.m. on May 30,” Church said.

He offered sobering statistics for that moment of reflection, combat death tolls from each of the nation’s major wars, including 291,000 in World War II and over 5,000 in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each one was a beloved member of a family, Church said.

In Shirley, 330 citizens signed on in World War II, representing 13 percent of the town’s population at that time. Thirteen of them died.

The tragic toll doesn’t end there. Church said military prisoners of war and those soldiers listed missing in action must be counted, too.

Those numbers totaled 155,000 in World War II, and there are still many missing.

As of 2009, the numbers of military men and women unaccounted for were over 74,000 from World War II, 8,044 from Korea and 1,720 from Vietnam. The families of those service men and women still don’t know what happened to them, he said, only that they never came home. On Memorial Day, the nation salutes and honors them all.

Church introduced another category to the memorial honor roll: Animals. Records show that hundreds of animals have served and died for the country, he said. During World War II, civilians were asked to enlist family dogs in the Army and Marine Corps, and 15 platoons of “war dogs” served. Animals are still enlisted in all branches of the service and are awarded ranks, he said, from private to sergeant. “They’ve saved soldiers’ lives and died in service,” Church said.

“These are the costs of freedom and liberty,” Church said. “We are responsible to make the right choices and to honor those who died,” he said.

Indicating veterans present and those absent but there in spirit, he said, “They did their duty, fulfilled their oath, perhaps we should all live by it.” An immeasurable debt is owed to the citizen soldiers who died in combat. “Because of them, we can go to the movies, the mall, walk down the street on a summer afternoon,” he said. “There are some places in the world where you can’t do any of those things.”

Church wrapped his speech with quotes from a simple, poignant poem by Kelly Strong, a Florida high school student whose father was a Marine. Copyrighted in 1981, the poem begins, “I watched the flag pass by one day/It fluttered in the breeze/A young Marine saluted it/And then he stood at ease.”

Young, tall, proud, the poem’s triumphant image segues to more sober images. “I thought how many men like him/Had fallen through the years?/How many died on foreign soil?/How many mothers’ tears?” Musing about the foxholes that became graves, the poet concludes “No, Freedom is not Free.” Hearing taps one night, the buglers notes brought a “sudden chill.” He wonders how many times those notes meant “Amen” for a brother or friend and mothers, wives, children were left behind, “with interrupted lives.” The final stanza is as stark as a pointed finger. “I thought about a graveyard/At the bottom of the sea/Of unmarked graves in Arlington/No, Freedom is not free!”

The program ended with patriotic songs by Stevie Schaeffer, Rebecca King, Lila McDougall, Wren West and Willow West and taps played by two members of the Immaculate Heart of Mary School Marching Band, which has marched and played in Shirley parades for 21 years. The buglers were Christopher Phill, of Littleton, a junior, and Michael Duffy, of Shirley, a senior headed for UMass Lowell next year.

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