History of Memorial Day: Why We Fight
HISTORY OF MEMORIAL DAY: WHY WE FIGHT
The world is different from two decades ago as we celebrate Memorial Day. We have troops in countries that we didn’t have then, and after 9/11, we now remember why we fight. The History Channel often re-runs the HBO series Band of Brothers, the T.V. adaptation of the Stephen Ambrose book about a company of soldiers from the landing at Normandy through the end of World War II in Europe.
Band of Brothers and Why We Fight
During WWII, my father crossed paths with Company E, mentioned in “Band of Brothers,” while liberating the Dachau Concentration Camp.
My father’s story was initially told in part on HBO’s website during the 2001 premiere (via Internet Archive) regarding the episode entitled “Why We Fight” on the liberation of Dachau and its many sub-camps.
Dachau Liberation and Memorial Day
I describe my father’s full story in pictures on his tribute page that I created as the backstory to the HBO link. He rarely volunteered information about the War, but he would answer when I asked specific questions. He left me photos taken during the liberation of Dachau. Ironically, a couple of decades ago, during my visit to Dachau, when I told the workers at this modern memorial that my father had participated in the liberation, they all asked me the same question:
“Do you have pictures?”
I still have these pictures of those who survived, who looked like skeletons. I also have photos of the skeletons of those who did not survive, of the open boxcars with bodies piled high.
My father had seen a lot of action during the War, but nothing prepared him for what he saw at Dachau. He said that he watched his commander vomit when he saw the camp. Those who were liberated were:
“like the dead, they could not believe that they were finally being freed.”
At the end of my tour of Dachau, I stood before this plaque attached to the tunnel leading up to the gate above. Even with the school children running around playing in the yard on their field trip day, I wept as I considered the bravery of my father’s group, Rainbow Division, one of three divisions that liberated the camp. I tell the story of the history of Dachau in my 4-part series written upon the 75th anniversary of its liberation here.
These gruesome images must never be forgotten. We must never forget the barbarism man is capable of committing toward fellow men. But some may say, “I don’t want to think about it; surely no one believes that these atrocities were justified, that they’d ever be repeated.”
Yet only four decades ago, when I was on the Staff of the University of California at Berkeley, an organization asked to use the University conference grounds property for a meeting. This request was denied when it was learned that the organization requesting the facilities maintained that the Holocaust was a hoax and that it did not actually occur. There was also a corresponding outcry that this organization’s free speech rights were being violated.
Memory and Memorial Day
A person who remembers the past can be grateful for the freedoms purchased at great cost by those who went before them. They can memorialize those who fought and died and honor those against whom horrors were committed. Without this sense of history, a person is a severed person, self-referential, cut off from the past.
On this Memorial Day, the words of George Santayana, Harvard philosopher and poet, are most apt:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
I hate to nitpick, but where are these multiple wars? We left Iraq two years ago.
Thanks for the note: nitpick? I love nitpicking!
Why do you assume I was referring to Iraq? Since last year, we’ve had troops or planes in Jordan, Turkey, Chad, Mali and Somalia. And that does not even count US stealth bomber flyovers of N. Korea.
Technically, America has not declared war since WWII. Only Congress can formally declare war, and that hasn’t happened since then. Even Korea was not a war, it was a UN Police Action, at least according to President Truman. The only things close to a “state of war” was our invasion of Panama in 1989 but that was against a criminal rather than a belligerent, and the War on Terror which Congress authorized the President to fight in 2001.
Perhaps I should change my article to refer to major conflicts.