The Origins of Memorial Day
Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) was conceived in May of 1868 by an organization of Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic.
By Paul Hicks
Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) was conceived in May of 1868 by an organization of Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic. They chose May 30 as an annual day of remembrance to honor those killed in the Civil War by decorating their graves with flowers. The first official observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. On that occasion nearly 5,000 individuals participated in decorating the graves of nearly 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried in what had been the plantation of Robert E. Lee.
In his speech that day, James A. Garfield, a former Union general and future President of the United States, said, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
New York became the first state to adopt the holiday officially in 1873, and by 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. Because Memorial Day was so closely associated with the Union cause many southern states chose not to observe it on May 30. Instead, they honored their dead on separate days, with some still observing Memorial Day on the first Monday in June along with the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.
On June 2, 1880, the Port Chester Journal reported that, “Decoration Day this year fell on a Sunday, a stormy, gloomy day, but Monday, the legal holiday, proved a regal day — the weather was delightful, the air was cool and the dust completely laid…The Rev. Mr. Goodsell of the Summerfield [Methodist] Church gave an allusion to the beautiful custom of honoring our dead by strewing the fairest flowers on their graves…”
The article continued: “The cadets of Starr’s Commercial Institute paraded during the day, making a soldierly and attractive appearance. They visited Greenwood Union Cemetery and placed floral tributes on the graves of their ‘comrades gone before.’ The beautiful ‘City of the Dead’ was filled with people…the flags in this vicinity were all at half mast, and the day passed as peacefully as it opened.”
The Civil War monument that stands today at Greenwood Union Cemetery in Rye was dedicated in 1888. The statue is of a soldier standing in the typical parade rest position, but the rifle he once clutched is missing. George Beck was the sculptor of the statute, which was cast by the Abendroth Brothers Foundry in Port Chester. Ten years later, a plaque was added commemorating Newell Rising, a young sailor from Port Chester killed on the Maine in Havana Harbor during the Spanish-American War.
After World War I the Memorial Day tradition changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war, and the southern states began to follow suit.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson designated Waterloo, N.Y. (in the Finger Lakes region) as the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day. It was there that a ceremony on May 5, 1866 honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Although there were earlier observances in several other places in the country, they were either informal or one-time events.
In 1971 Congress passed a law making Memorial Day a national holiday that is celebrated on the last Monday in May. Then, to ensure the sacrifices of the nation’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, Congress passed and the president signed into law in 2000 “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” Its purpose is to encourage all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.
The tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day was started by a professor at the University of Georgia named Moina Michael, who taught a class of disabled servicemen after World War I. Realizing the need to provide financial and occupational support for disabled veterans, she conceived the idea of selling silk poppies as a means of raising funds. In 1921, her efforts resulted in the poppy being widely adopted as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans. Michael had been inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields,” which begins:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
A War Hero Exhorts Students to Be Upstanders, Not Bystanders
By Janice Llanes Fabry
Rye Neck Middle School and the PTSA hosted World War II veteran and concentration camp liberator Alan Moskin on May 16. Moskin, sharp as a tack at 88, shared his personal stories and harrowing memories of serving in Europe from 1944 until 1946.
Although he remained silent about his experiences for 50 years, in 1995, he had a change of heart when the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center came knocking. Since his first appearance in Nanuet, where he resides, the veteran has related his war experiences to 25,000 middle, high school, and college students in 15 states.
“It was like a calling for me. I had been fearful about bringing back the disturbing and frightening nightmares of what I had witnessed, but I was dead wrong,” admitted Moskin. “It was a catharsis, a purging of all the poison inside of me. I want the kids to know the truth, that there was a Holocaust, and to make sure the hell and horror never happens again.”
As the youngest soldier in the 71st infantry division of General George Patton’s Third Army, Moskin was drafted into the military at age 18. He talked about his fierce patriotism, basic training, and how unprepared he was for the prejudice he encountered in the American South. Promoted from private to staff sergeant, he fought in combat through France, Germany, and Austria. Wearing his military cap proudly, because it helps him “feel connected to my buddies,” he talked about losing so many of them.
“I’m just one of the lucky ones. You don’t get over your best friend being shot,” recalled Moskin. “There’s nothing romantic or heroic about war. Everybody’s scared.”
He also talked about how killing a Hitler youth haunted him because “it was a young German boy who wasn’t going home to his mother and father.” His infantry went on to rescue a prisoner-of-war camp of mostly English soldiers from the Royal Air Force. It was then that Moskin and his company learned about the concentration camps.
“We were there to fight for our country, not to liberate Jews because we knew nothing about them,” noted Moskin, whose infantry subsequently headed to Gunskirchen Concentration Camp in Austria, a sub-camp of Mauthausen, in May 1945.
“The nauseating stench got into your nostrils and brain,” recalled Moskin. “It was the most horrific sight. There was a pile of skeleton-like bodies with sunken eyes and hollowed out cheeks. There was dysentery and vomit. We weren’t prepared for something like that.”
When his captain asked if anyone could speak Hebrew, Moskin stepped forward. Although he could not speak the language, he was able to convey that he, himself, was Jewish. “For the first time, I saw a smile. This bag of bones of a man kissed my boots and kept thanking me. I started to cry and still get all choked up when I talk about it,” said Moskin, who remained in Austria as a member of the U.S. Army of Occupation for another year.
At the Rye Neck Performing Arts Center’s podium, the veteran continued to evoke his platoon buddies from 69 years ago by name. “I’m here because of them. I bear witness for them and I’m going to continue to speak as long as God gives me the strength,” he said. “It’s up to this generation to do the job and to do away with the hate and prejudice that still exists. Be upstanders, not bystanders.”
World War II Hero Shares His Story With RMS Students
By Tom McDermott
For five and a half months after his B-29 was shot down during a bombing run over Japan in March 1945, Nick Cristiano’s parents back in the Arthur Avenue area of the Bronx thought he was lost forever.
On the day when the then 19-year-old right-side gunner’s aircraft took off with a crew of 11, a total of 44 Americans flew from the same base on Tinian Island. Only two survived, one was Cristiano, who visited his granddaughter Emmy’s eighth-grade Language Arts class at Rye Middle School May 28.
Corporal Cristiano told attentive students that his B-29 was hit hard by “ack-ack,” antiaircraft ground fire. He was ready to parachute out when he was hit by shrapnel; his helmet saved him from more serious injuries. At first, his chute took him up instead of down before eventually depositing him knee-deep in a soft rice paddy. He was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp at Ofuma, the same place where Louis Zamperini, the subject of the current bestseller “Unbroken,” was held. There, Cristiano was startled to learn that his interrogator knew the Bronx well; he was a Fordham grad.
For students wondering what a World War II hero might sound like, the answer is: proud without being boastful, humorous, respectful of how lucky he is, and brimming with life. Cristiano comes across as a guy who has never had a bad day.
Students and their teacher, Mrs. Noreen Kennedy asked good questions. “What was prison life like”? Some of the guards were okay, some not so. When he helped out in the prison commander’s garden, he got a cigarette. He got to play Ping-Pong with a guard and won more cigarettes.
“Did you know about the first atomic bomb being dropped?” No, “but, we were beaten by the guards that day.”
“What did you eat and how did you sleep?” Barley, which was better than rice and yellow tea; on mats without blankets; and they swept the room clean each day and washed often due to their captors’ culture of cleanliness.
“Did you receive any medals?” Yes, a Purple Heart for the shrapnel wounds.
When the war was over, the captors told the prisoners that they would now be their protectors – from the local population – and all the guards were changed.
Soon, soldiers came to Cristiano’s parents’ home to inform them that their son was alive. When family friends came to tell them that they’d just seen their son in a Pathé newsreel down the street, his father ran out to take a look for himself. Mrs. Kennedy played a tape of the same newsreel for her students, and there was a smiling Cristiano, only a few years older than the students at the time.
Back home in the Bronx, Cristiano, on leave from Ft. Dix, feasted on local cuisine and reacquainted himself with a special girl who thought he had been killed. “We were ‘keeping company.’ We weren’t engaged,” he explained. But, in 1948, he and Margaret were married and they celebrated their 65th anniversary last year.
“Did this modest war hero do something special on this Memorial Day?” He went out for Chinese.
Vietnam Vets Share the Things They Carried
By Janice Llanes Fabry
After reading Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a collection of short stories about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, eleventh-grade Rye Neck students were prepared to meet local veterans. Five Vietnam veterans, two of whom were Rye Neck alums, visited the school May 29.
“Meeting with veterans puts a personal face on the almost 50-year old armed conflict,” said English teacher Lyda Ely
Three classes had the opportunity to speak with the veterans and ask questions, which they answered candidly and thoughtfully. The panel included Dennis Cucinella, who lives in the village of Mamaroneck, and Skip Donohue, who is a staff member at Rye Neck, both of whom represented the US Navy and the Rye Neck High School class of 1964; Sal Ticli, a US Marine, and Gregory Molesworth, a soldier in the US Army, both of whom graduated from Mamaroneck High School in 1964; and Bruce Stone of the US Air Force, who graduated from Mamaroneck High in 1966.
When asked whether serving during the Vietnam War was what they had imagined before being drafted or enlisting, Ticli replied, “None of this was what I thought. Until you actually experience it, you have no clue.”
Molesworth replied, “After one tour of duty, I felt lucky to be alive.”
The veterans seemed to share a band-of-brothers’ familiarity. They agreed that camaraderie is one of the only positive aspects they came away with, along with honor and a will to survive. They acknowledged that talking about the war continues to be a healing process, and although they have no regrets, they have no interest in ever visiting Vietnam.
The students will write a research paper, exploring the effects of the war by incorporating “The Things They Carried,” historical analysis, and these veterans’ first-person accounts.