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While Memorial Day has become synonymous with barbeques and the unofficial start to summer, it began and remains, a celebratory annual event to honor fallen U.S. personnel- from all branches of the armed forces. While both Veterans and Memorial Day aim to recognize those who serve our country, Memorial Day is meant to honor the lives of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, Brady National Photographic Portrait Galleries, between 1860 and 1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division.

Honoring Civil War soldiers

Following the American Civil War, women’s groups throughout the southern United States were decorating soldier’s graves who passed away during the Civil War. In May of 1868, General John A. Logan, of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree making May 30 Decoration Day for more than 620,000 soldiers killed during this four-year war among the states.  Many speculate the date was chosen as it did not coincide with any historic Civil War battle. Others thought it was timed with the availability of spring flowers being in full bloom. 

The tradition expands

When America entered World War I, the tradition of honoring the dead expanded to include those who perished in all American wars; Korean, Vietnam, and World War II. Up until then, the holiday was only to commemorate soldiers killed in the U.S. Civil War, not in any other American conflict. 

Decoration Day becomes Memorial Day

For decades, the holiday continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, establishing Memorial Day as the last Monday in May creating a federal three-day weekend.

Honoring women in service 

Air Force photo 060807-F-1234P-100.  A Women’s Air Force Service Pilots flight team walks from the Pistol Packin’ Mama. Photo courtesy/WASP Museum

Women fought alongside men during the Civil War —many of them, some 400 or more, were disguised as men. But it took until the 1970s for women to receive weapons training, and until 2016 for women to have the equal right to choose any military occupational specialty. Since the time of the American Revolution, more than 2.5 million women have—and continue—to serve in the U.S. armed forces. 

WASP Ann McClellan adjusts her earphones in the cockpit of a BT-13 while Anne Johnson stands on the wing of the plane. Credit Image Number 4A-22688-K3615, Record Groupo 342, National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, College Park, MD

In 1943 Jacqueline Cochran, developed the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), as the United States faced a shortage of male fighter pilots when World War II was at its peak.  The 1,074 WASPs flew a total of 60 million miles and were stationed at 120 bases all over the world. Their duties involved ferrying planes and performing a variety of missions. They were considered civilians and were not granted military benefits or burials. Women pilots were banned from taking part in actual combat until 1976 when women were accepted into the U.S. Air Force pilot training program on equal terms. 

In 1997, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial was created at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. It is the only major memorial honoring servicewomen. In 2016, Congress passed legislation allowing the cremated remains of WASP to be buried at Arlington. 

Every Memorial Day, Women in Aviation International in partnership with Texas Woman’s University, provides an updated Google map tool created specifically to locate the WASP gravesites of the more than 1,000 servicewomen. For help with locating veteran graves, visit the National Cemetery Administration.

Memorial Day trivia:

  • The first national celebration took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers are buried
  • A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m.. local time every year on Memorial Day
  • The American flag should be lowered to half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, then raised to full staff 
  • The holiday is also used to honor civilians—the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day 1922  
  • The red poppy became a symbol of Memorial Day after an American woman, Moina Michael became inspired by a World War I poem- If Flanders Fields by the Canadian poet John McCrae.
  • In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y. the official birthplace of Memorial Day 

Plan your memorial visits

If you plan to visit any local or national cemetery this Memorial Day please contact local municipalities to determine health restrictions in place for visiting, and decorating gravesites. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs encourages you to visit COVID-19 Alerts for an updated list of precautions at national sites. For a list of Memorial Day events taking place in the Wood River Valley please visit – Memorial Day in Wood River Valley.

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