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Remembering The Fallen: Memorial Day Traditions


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The last Monday in May marks the end of a long weekend for most, maybe a family barbecue on the unofficial start of summer. For many, Memorial Day is more significant - a day to commemorate, in various ways, the men and women who lost their lives in battle.

For most of the program, we'll talk about how the tradition of Decoration Day, the design of our memorials, but we want to ask you about who. Who do you remember this Memorial Day? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, author Simon Winchester on the most complex word in the English language. We have a new champion. But first, Memorial Day.

And let's start with a caller. Ray joins us on the line from Chicago. Ray, nice to have you with us today.

RAY (Caller): Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Who do you remember this Memorial Day?

RAY: My Uncle Dale Glaspin(ph), my father's brother.

CONAN: And how did he die?

RAY: He was with the Army invading in the South Pacific, and the captain of the landing craft choked and left men out where they couldn't walk to shore, and Dale couldn't swim. He drowned.

CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that, and do you remember which battle that was?

RAY: It's the name of an island, New Guinea. The only time - the only time I ever saw my father weep was when he got word that his brother had died.

CONAN: There were several invasions. General MacArthur was in charge of that. They hop-scotched around the shore, avoiding Japanese forces in various places and isolating them. And though it was a brilliant campaign, yes, a lot of men died, including your uncle, and I'm sorry to hear that. How do you remember him on this day?

RAY: Well, I remember living in Massillon, Ohio, and Uncle Dale used to walk all the way from Brady Lake just to visit our family. He was not married, and he used to play with my two sisters and I. He was a good guy.

CONAN: Ray, that's as good an epitaph as most of us could hope for.

RAY: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Thank you for calling.

RAY: You bet.

CONAN: Joining us here in the studio is Alan Jabbour, a folklorist and author of "Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians," and nice of you to come in to spend some time here with us in Studio 3A.

Mr. ALAN JABBOUR (Folklorist; Author," Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians"): Oh, thank you very much, Neal. I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And Decoration Day, the way you describe it is really the predecessor of our Memorial Day.

Mr. JABBOUR: I can't prove it, but I'm pretty well convinced that's the case. It's a traditional that's alive and well now, basically in the upland South, more or less from the Appalachians, west and southwest of the Ozarks, maybe even to northeast Texas and eastern Oklahoma. And then it kind of fades out with the plains, you might say.

But it's alive and well, and we were astonished to discover this tradition. I say we, my wife and I. She and I did work on this together. As a folklorist, you sometimes wonder: Have all the traditions in the world by now been documented?

Well, it turns out here's a big tradition that hundreds of thousands of people in America participate in, and the rest of us are clueless, and so we started visiting decorations and cemeteries in the rural South, and it was really a transforming experience.

CONAN: Yet even today, when we saw President Obama speak at Arlington National Cemetery after laying a wreath for the - at the tomb of the unknowns, there were people in the cemetery placing roses on every grave.

Mr. JABBOUR: That's right. That's the personal side of all decorations, whether it's the old-fashioned Decoration Day or the post-Civil War Memorial Day. At some level, it also has the personal relationship between the people above ground and the people below the ground.

CONAN: Yet Decoration Day, the day you and you and your wife describe it, is, well, it sort of combines that and the family barbecue, too.

Mr. JABBOUR: Well, that's right because you go through - well, you clean the cemetery first. Then you decorate the graves. And then you have essentially a religious service right there in the cemetery - preaching, gospel singing, prayers and so forth.

And then there's some communing, you know, individually talking with friends, relatives, and then you end with dinner on the ground. And dinner on the ground in the context of a cemetery on Decoration Day is literally dinner on the grounds of the cemetery. And people, very often, you'll go through the rural South, and you'll see a cemetery, and there'll be a pavilion.

And you'll wonder: Well, what's that pavilion for? And you might think: Well, maybe that's in case it's raining when they bury somebody. But it's also for the events like Decoration Day, where people gather in the cemetery and then commune together afterwards on dinner on the ground.

CONAN: And this of course took on new resonance after the awful experience this country underwent in the Civil War.

Mr. JABBOUR: Yeah, I think the Civil War got the whole country focused even more on their relationship to the people underground. There were suddenly so many of them. And there was a touching event that happened where the wife of the general who was the commanding general - this is after the war - of the Grand Army of the Republic - that was essentially the Union veterans - John Logan(ph), well, Mary Logan(ph) and some friends were touring in Virginia after the war.

And they were in Petersburg, Virginia, and were told they should see this beautiful church, Blandford Church, and they were going there, and to get there you have to go through the cemetery. And she noticed all the graves that were people buried from the late war were decorated with flowers, and they had little miniature flags set in them for, in effect, for the lost cause, you know, commemorating their fighting for it, though they lost and died.

And she was deeply moved by this. So she goes back to Washington. The first thing she tells John Logan the story of what she saw, and he says: Wow, this is a great idea. We'll have everybody do it. So he sends out an executive order to all the men in the Grand Army of the Republic to go out and decorate the graves of their fellows who had been fallen in the late battles. And they did, and that was the beginning of the modern, first Northern Memorial Day, but now, by now, national Memorial Day.

CONAN: Petersburg, of course, the site of a terrible battle in the last years of the war.

Mr. JABBOUR: A terrible, right...

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Gene(ph) in Phoenix: Today I remember my father, who died in January at age 90. Until I went through his Army Air Corps things this past spring, I never quite understood his sacrifice.

His trunk tucked away in the basement, never opened, held 27 months of overseas memories from World War II, something he never spoke of. But he taught us to respect the flag, country and veterans and hit the cemetery every Memorial Day.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is John, John with us from Boulder.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, John. Who do you remember this Memorial Day?

JOHN: I remember two soldiers that I served with that lost their lives during training when I was deployed to Korea.

CONAN: During training, that's - it seems - it's hard to say that some lives are - you can't say that some lives are wasted, but boy, that seems awful.

JOHN: Yeah, exactly, because they died doing their jobs but not the purpose for which that job exists. Yeah.

CONAN: And do you remember their names?

JOHN: I do.

CONAN: Can you tell us?

JOHN: It's Sergeant Warner and Specialist Patterson(ph).

CONAN: Well, John, thank you very much for the call, and we're sorry for your loss.

Joining us now is - this is by phone from his home in Kelseyville, California, is Rolf Kriken. He's a sculptor who designed the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is located in Sacramento, and it's nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ROLF KRIKEN: (Sculptor; Designer, California Vietnam Veterans Memorial): Hi, thank you.

CONAN: And the Vietnam Veterans Memorial you created on the West Coast is quite different from the one most of us know that Maya Lin constructed here on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Mr. KRIKEN: That's correct. Herman Woods(ph), who is a double amputee and was with the First Air Cav, came back after the dedication of the Maya Lin memorial and was determined to get something going here in California.

And upon his research, he realized that we had lost - not that these are bragging rights - but that we had lost 5,822 men and women, which was the largest amount of any state.

And the - more California residents were killed in Vietnam than the other residents is what I'm saying, and we also received a lot of the Medal of Honors and the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, as well, so...

CONAN: But how did you decide to - you got one example. You clearly don't want to do that again.

Mr. KRIKEN: How do you mean?

CONAN: The Maya Lin memorial.

Mr. KRIKEN: Every - people need to be represented, and you have smaller memorials all around, in every state now, Vietnam, all wars, memorials, working on one presently right now for the B-17, people with the Flying Fortresses in Madras, Oregon. It's a small memorial, but it's to recognize where the training ground was there, where they had lost some people in training, as well.

CONAN: And what principles guide you as you try to memorialize these men and women?

Mr. KRIKEN: Well, there are many, but it's mainly listening to the stories - and, I mean, the main focus on a memorial is to heal the wounds of the veterans and the families and the willingness to show the sacrifice by those who served and relate the loneliness and the vulnerability of a soldier in combat and hopefully transport the visitor into another time and space and expand the awareness of hardships incurred by veterans and their families.

CONAN: And give us an idea of who they were, those of us who did not know them.

Mr. KRIKEN: Well, memorials are kind of a thing where you try and step into a space and feel. At the California memorial, we have four kind of anterooms where we have the POW panel, the rest panel, the action panel, and we were the first ones that included women in the memorial because there was between 11,000 to 15,000 women that served in Vietnam.

And so Rose Sendachy(ph) was very terrific in giving us our guidance on putting together that panel. And then in reference, Time-Life Books and Mr. Duncan(ph), I believe, the photographer and (unintelligible) photographers, we used a lot of photographs out of Time-Life. I got permission to replicate kind of what the experience was like.

Rolf Kriken, stay with us if you would, but we want to extend our thanks to Alan Jabbour, who's a folklorist and author of "Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians." Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. JABBOUR: Thank you very much. It was good being here.


(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

Today, Americans around the country gather at events large and small to honor the lives of service members. In Tucson, the Arizona Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing conducted fly-bys over several ceremonies. A memorial wreath was laid on the Honeysuckle Beach in Hayden, Idaho, to honor servicemen and women lost at sea.

And throughout the day in cities and towns, crowds line the streets to salute veterans riding on floats or marching in parades.

Who do you remember this Memorial Day? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We got this email from Beth in Flagstaff, Arizona: I took a name from the Vietnam Memorial when visiting D.C. 16 years ago for a high school trip. The name was Buddy Ray Martin.

Through years of research and trying to find out more about him, my findings were limited. He was a Marine, lance corporal, died at the age of 19 on 7/10/67 in South Vietnam.

In trying to find information on Buddy, I connected with one of his best friends from high school, David, who also served during the war. David was severely injured during the Battle of Wei.

David and I are Facebook friends and have communicated many times via email. The friendship forged between myself and David began with a search on more info on Buddy. I remember him in many ways, not only in his service for the U.S., but in how he created his friendship between myself and David.

With us today is a man who sculpts memorials, including the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That's Rolf Kriken. He's with us by phone from his home in Kelseyville in California.

And Mr. Kriken, that's one of the roles that a memorial can serve.

Mr. KRIKEN: Yes. The memorial is very much a healing place, and hopefully that allow people to take something with them. And if the memorial is successful that way, I hope that they are, you know, healing and try and bring closure and completion to some.

And it's also where a lot of people basically get together, certainly at our ceremonies, but also individually when they're walking through the memorial.

CONAN: You said one of the most important things to do when considering a design was to read the stories of the soldiers or airmen who you're trying to memorialize. It's also important to listen. These are highly emotional places.

Mr. KRIKEN: It's very tough. The responsibility is huge. It's absolutely huge. When I went in, and the pre-cast panels were up, I realized that all the low-relief work that I had done was just too insignificant. Then I had to pull the figures out of the wall and make them more three-dimensional to make it a stronger presence.

And that - you just have to do things like that. I mean, you have to look at the situation, but sometimes when you're just - until you see the actual scale of the piece - and then in the studio, I did build these panels out of wood to scale so I could work off of them, so that the artwork would fit inside and be compatible with the panels. So...

CONAN: This must be a business that, in a way, you wish you could, all of us, could get out of.

Mr. KRIKEN: Yeah, it's - you know, it's either a blessing or a curse, I guess. I don't know. It's just something that - it was such a privilege to work with the commission that we had, and as I've done others, I realized how terrific the commission was at the California memorial, because when it's done by committee, it gets very difficult, and bragging rights sets in. And it just - it's a tough procession down the road to represent everyone accordingly. And it's a real important deal to all the different ethnic groups and the different units, you know, involved with each memorial. So...

CONAN: Have - to your knowledge, have there yet been memorials erected for Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr. KRIKEN: Oh, I believe there are certainly some in place there. When I was doing the Cleveland memorial, we had the four anterooms. It was Vietnam - well, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, and then the final anteroom was World War I.

And I had - there's a wonderful sculpture of Big Nims, or a photograph, and he was handing the gas masks over to the Persian Gulf veteran, to -which just - it deals with the continuum, because World War I, certainly, was mustard gas and laughing gas, and so it was just kind of a somewhat poetic end to the final anteroom, as things seem to continue on.

CONAN: Rolf Kriken, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. KRIKEN: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Rolf Kriken, a sculptor and designer of, among others, the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He joined us today from his home in Kelseyville, California.

This from Rod in Foster City, California: Remembering Donald Lee Harrison, U.S. Army, my wingman, classmate, roommate, mentor and friend, shot down 28 October 1968. Oh, that there was a grave to decorate. He is still MIA, as are too many others.

Let's go next - this is Jeff, Jeff with us from Cleveland.

JEFF (Caller): Yeah, how are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm very well. Who do you remember this Memorial Day?

JEFF: Actually, I told the screener one guy, but actually there's two that I want to remember. The first one, most important one, is my best friend Rick, who died on May 24th, 2008, and it was on Memorial Day weekend that he died.

He served in Korea, was on the DMZ, and according to him, he said that he actually had traded some shots back and forth across the border, though he didn't hit anybody, and obviously, nobody hit him.

But he developed cancer and went into the VA hospital and was there for a couple months, and then it seemed like practically overnight he was gone.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry.

JEFF: So that was pretty rough. The other one that I want to remember is Lieutenant Corporal Jose S. Marindomingas, Jr.(ph) from Liberal, Kansas.

CONAN: That's quite a name.

JEFF: Yeah. He was a Marine in serving in Iraq whose wristband I've been wearing since 2006 from inourhearts.org. So I wanted to mention his name, as well.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: This from Steve in Pleasant Hill, California. I remember my father, Charles A. Newman, killed in Korea August 19th, 1951, at a place called Bloody Ridge.

I was six months old at the time. I hope we will also remember for every soldier lost, there are those to whom every day becomes a Memorial Day, an inescapable, relentless, every-waking-hour Memorial Day. That there is a day of every year that the public joins us is sometimes cold comfort.

Let's go next to Hank, and Hank's on the line with us from Charlottesville.

HANK (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

HANK: I was calling today in remembrance of my great-uncle, who was a man who I came to know sort of the last decade or so, who served with the Navy Seabees on Okinawa in World War II. He obviously made it out, but his brother, my other great-uncle, was a man that I never got to meet, and he was shot down in France. He was a pilot.

CONAN: And how do you remember them?

HANK: Remembering my great-uncle today for some of the stories that he told me and for the - just for the knowledge and the wisdom that he shared with me. I'm 18 years old and likely to not serve in the military, but I believe that he has passed on through - to me, rather, some very important values that I hope to remember throughout the rest of my life.

And the father of the two great uncles of mine, my great-grandfather, had the distinct honor of serving in both World Wars I and II.

CONAN: Hank, thanks very much for the call.

HANK: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jody, Jody with us from Carson City in Nevada.

JODY (Caller): Top of the day, Neal.

CONAN: How are you?

JODY: Fine. Calling to make note of remembrance, my mother and father, who worked - my mother directly as part of the Manhattan Project, processing plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb, and died of leukemia when I was 17.

CONAN: As a result, do you think?

JODY: Oh, I don't think there's any doubt about it. Yeah. As a matter of fact, I was exposed as an egg, and they've found nodules all over my thyroid and things, and people are - you know, we don't know if that's where it came from. It was - I don't want to sidetrack on me.

My mother and father were both there. And in 1945, Neal, there were 345,000 Curies of Iodine-131 released in accidents and on purpose from Hanford. Three Mile Island was only 13 Curies. So it shows you. You know, they were in a hurry to get this done, and that's the risks of war, I guess.

And I can tell you this: My mother said in her last days (unintelligible) that this is a terrible thing, but if it had to be, it's a good thing we had it instead of the other guys. And don't judge our generation from yours, because we used it because you know - we know what we went through, and you didn't.

My mother's name was Vivian Virginia Perry(ph) and Hanford, and she was WAC attached to the Corps of Engineers.

CONAN: Thank you, Jody.

JODY: And my father, Jack Peterson(ph), was an air traffic controller at Pasco Naval Air Station. He also died of amplified heart disease a few years after she did. They both died young, and probably as a result of their exposure. And we honor them.

And we honor them; my sister was only 8 years old. So we think about it often, sacrifices, and certainly honor them by trying to better ourselves.

CONAN: Thank you, Jody. Appreciate it.

JODY: You bet, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now by phone from his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, is Bob Doherty, president and founder of Honor Flight Historic Triangle Virginia. It's a nonprofit organization that takes the World War II and terminally ill veterans in the Hampton Roads and Richmond areas to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. And it's nice to have you with us today.

Mr. BOB DOHERTY (President and Founder, Honor Flight Historic Triangle Virginia): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And if we were out on the Mall today in Washington - a terribly hot day, I'm afraid - but would we see vets that have flown in from different parts of the country?

Mr. DOHERTY: You probably would. We have a schedule that brings in veterans from around the country. It's starts up in March and goes through November. And it does - most of them come in over the weekends where there's two or three or four groups from, you know, all over the country in there.

And so, today, although I'm down here at Williamsburg, I'm sure there's a couple that are in there today, although they'd be - they probably try not to get there on a day like today with so many other visitors because we're working with people that are in their 80s and 90s. And we'd like to keep it so it's not too crowded for them.

CONAN: I happened to have been at BWI Airport one day on a flight going out waiting for it. And there was a flight coming in and some people came around before the exit door opened on the - in the airport and they said, these are men coming in, veterans of the Second World War who've never been to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial there that they spent so much of their life doing - would you give them a round of applause when they came in? And they came in, and some walking and some with canes and some with walkers, and there was more than a few damp eyes as they listened to the applause and cheers.

Mr. DOHERTY: Well, I'll tell you that phrase, a few damp eyes, is what occurs all through the day on these trips. As you know and your audience knows, World War II veterans are something of a national treasure for us. We're losing them at the rate of about 1,500 a day. We started with 16 million of them. And now, there's approximately about 2 million left.

And our group, Honor Flight, which is a national group, has only one mission, and that's to take with honor and appreciation these veterans, before it's too late, up to Washington if they have not yet visited the memorial, to the memorial which was built for them. It's actually 60 years after the war ended. And we do this at absolutely no cost to them. It's an extraordinary day at - for these really humble and unassuming men and women.

We have nearly 100 hubs across the country in 35 states. And ours, which as you mentioned in the intro of yours is - covers the area from Richmond down to Norfolk area of Virginia. There hubs are all over the country in 34 states. In fact, many states have multiple hubs there. And there's eight Missouri. There's seven or eight in Ohio and Texas. Illinois, Missouri, Iowa have six. So there is an opportunity here for our fellow Americans here to thank these people before it's too late.

Next week, as I said, I'm not sure how many are there today, but next week, there will be groups coming in from Washington state, South Dakota, a couple from New York, Buffalo and Long Island, from southern Jersey, from Ohio, Alabama. And that's just next week. Every week, it's like that from March through November. Of course, we're not doing the wintertime, a little too cold and sometimes a little too hot.

CONAN: Like today.

Mr. DOHERTY: Like today.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your time. And, Bob, thank you for joining us.

Mr. DOHERTY: Well, Neal? Neal?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DOHERTY: Whoop, can I - I like to just launch - we have your audience here. I'd like to just leave with one thing.

CONAN: If you could make it quick though.

Mr. DOHERTY: OK. Anyone listening to this that has any interest in knowing more about this, just go to honorflight.org. That's the national website. And they can learn about the organizations in their local area by using a drop-down link there that's called regions and local programs. And there's videos, all kinds of information. They can learn everything they ever wanted to know about, and maybe they can join to help us.

CONAN: Honorflight.org. Bob Doherty, thank you very much.

Mr. DOHERTY: You're welcome.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Karen(ph) in Denver: This day reminds me most of our fallen Native American veterans. My father, who is living, was a World War II Army veteran and a POW. His legacy will always remain with me and our family. This memory of his is still, to this day, an emotional one. I also remember my two maternal uncles who were both Navajo code talkers. One was in the original 29 group. The other was with another group. They are both gone on within the last two years. Both men lived secluded lives. I think they took their oath seriously to keep their job with the Marines a secret.

Let's go next to Angel(ph), Angel with us from Portland.

ANGEL (Caller): Oh, yes. Neal, this is Angel from Portland. And I just was listening to your show, and, of course, I love it. I'm remembering Captain Leo Thomas. He was an Air Force officer who got killed in a F-4 Phantom shoot down. He was shot down. And he was on his way he was on his last mission before he was going to go home to see his eight-month-old son and...

CONAN: This is in Vietnam?

ANGEL: This is - yeah, we were stationed in Thailand and I was an officer there running the officers club. And bright star of a fellow, was going to, you know, Air Force Academy graduate, was going to go places. And we were - had been talking about him going home to see his new baby. And it was just tragic. And I've never forgotten him. And I've written a book the whole time frame there when I was there.

And his son, the eight-month-old, who's now today 40, was surfing the Internet and found my website about the book and wrote me an email and said, did you know my dad, and I just broke up. And so I talked to the young man and he was surfing the Internet because he was trying to find out more information about his father on this Memorial Day. And I just talked to him last week, and I connected him up with his dad's squadron commander and some other pilots who were in that flight that day. So that's who I'm remembering today.

CONAN: Thank you, Angel.

ANGEL: Yeah.

CONAN: This, finally, Cathy(ph) in Ventura, California. In 2004, a 19-year-old Marine, Lance Corporal Nicholas Hale Anderson was killed in Baghdad, Iraq. I knew him from a young child, the son of a dive boat captain, Al Anderson, who was a Navy veteran. He was the first young Marine to die from Ventura County, California. His funeral was attended by more than 700 people, the first military funeral I attended. I am grateful for all our military and hope we continue to care for them as they come home with their lifelong injuries.

Our thanks to everybody who called and wrote to us today, and we're sorry we could not get to all of your messages and remember the people you remember on this Memorial Day.

Stay with us, though. Coming up, we'll be talking with author, Simon Winchester, about a word that gets more space in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other, a three-letter word, run.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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