Jim Jenkins

Memorial Day brings names in stone – and in memory

Boy and Girl Scouts from Wake County placed over 1,500 American flags on the graves of fallen soldiers during Memorial Day weekend last year at Raleigh National Cemetery.
Boy and Girl Scouts from Wake County placed over 1,500 American flags on the graves of fallen soldiers during Memorial Day weekend last year at Raleigh National Cemetery. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Every year on Memorial Day, the little pilgrimages are made – by thousands, probably tens of thousands, perhaps more. They are the survivors, the ones who live to mark the sacrifices of fathers, mothers, grandfathers and the greats and great-greats. The ones who died in uniform – America’s uniform, or yes, in some cases, the Confederacy’s or the Union’s uniform.

I’ve walked the rows of stones in cemeteries from the coast to the foothills, kin to someone who lies therein (owing to a large extended family), but curious about the inscriptions on the markers of those who’ll have flags on their graves this coming Memorial Day. Many do include dates of service, the branches, the places they fell. Some have patriotic words chiseled in their stones. But many contain the most simple of recognitions, a word or two: “Son.” “Beloved Son.” (Daughters who served were of course no less gallant, but fewer.)

It’s a reminder, perhaps, of how young they were when they left for Gettysburg or Chancellorsville, or France, or Italy, or Korea or Vietnam. So young. Life would end before it began.

I always start my march among the stones over the internet, which takes me to the Luxembourg American Cemetery, where slightly more than 5,000 felled in service rest. Every year, the first grave to visit is that of my cousin, Joe Jones of Boiling Springs, killed in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, a fierce, late-war battle responsible for thousands of deaths. Joe was a Clemson-trained engineer, tall and strong and my father’s closest childhood companion.

I see him first, there on the computer screen. Clemson has his picture on an alumni site and the cemetery has his gravestone.

One year, Arlington was the destination. It is a place every American should visit because it reminds us of all we have in common, especially at a time when we seem so divided. Walk among the uniform white stones and see some with just the basic information, and others with an understated notation that the soldier won the Medal of Honor. Not all stones are equal, but most are – heroes and those who fell in big battles, millionaires and country boys, veterans of glorious victory and anguished defeat. Most died young. So young.

Another year, it was the Vietnam Memorial. There is no point in trying to capture that feeling in words. Those words don’t exist.

Mostly, though, on Memorial Day, Americans will go see their own, if their resting places are accessible. The flags will be the markers, leading the family members, or perhaps even descendants of friends, to the gravestones. If there’s a group, someone who knows the story will tell it: She died in a bombing of the small town she was working in, serving in. He was killed in hand-to-hand combat. They said his men thought him a hero. He died in a prisoner-of-war camp; we told his mother another story.

War takes people in so many awful ways but honor is universal. The flags that will mark their graves on Memorial Day and on Veterans Day and perhaps on other days of a family’s choosing tell simply a story of service – they served, and honorably so, their country.

Their families will think as well, as they stand among the stones, of all the might-have-beens. These were young people in the prime of life and all was before them. Some in the World War II era had come through the Depression with glorious hopes, and many talked of families. A man left Cleveland County in North Carolina bound for Gettysburg with small children at home. My great-great grandfather died on the second day of the battle.

War provides us with lots of stories – most of them terrible with tragic endings.

Next year as Memorial Day approaches, we’ll start the visiting again. But I’m going to see Joe then, in Luxembourg. It’s time the family paid a call to a beloved son.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com