By Léo Azambuja
On May 26, Kaua‘i will join the rest of the nation in honoring veterans who have died, a tradition dating back almost 150 years, with some arguing it goes even further into the past.
“Memorial Day is when we honor our dead veterans,” said Charlene Dorsey, Junior Vice Commander of Kaua‘i Veterans Center, explaining that Veterans Day, celebrated later in the year, “is for the living.”
Dorsey is also the chair of the Memorial Day event held annually at the Kaua‘i Veterans Cemetery in Hanapepe.
This year’s observance of Memorial Day will be a little different than in previous years.
Kaua‘i Veterans Center event coordinator Aida Cruz said that because the Veterans Day Parade in November will highlight women in the military, all other military events are doing the same.
The minister for the Memorial Day event will be a woman, and after the Commander’s Address, there will be women speakers. Additionally, a woman will join the commander and the mayor in placing a wreath on a grave at the closing of the event.
Between veterans and their family members, there are more than 2,000 people buried at Kaua‘i Veterans Cemetery.
“We want to make sure that every grave receives a lei,” Dorsey said.
And for this goal to be achieved, several organizations help making open leis that are 12-15 inches long, to be draped over the graves. But Dorsey and Cruz said they still need volunteers willing to help in making leis.
When the American Civil War ended in May 1865, more than 600,000 soldiers had died. If the death toll wasn’t already high enough, consider that the United States Census in 1860 counted 31.44 million people in 1860, a year before the war broke out. In today’s numbers, it would be the equivalent of more than 6 million soldiers being killed.
Three years after the Civil War ended, Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed Decoration Day (later becoming Memorial Day), which was first observed at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1865, with flowers placed on top of graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.
“Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic,” Logan is quoted during Memorial Day proclamation May 5, 1868.
There is evidence, however, that several towns or cities were already honoring fallen soldiers before Logan’s proclamation.
Until World War I, Memorial Day was a holiday to recognize only those who died in the Civil War, and the southern states would not acknowledge the date. When the holiday changed after WWI to include those who died in any war, the entire nation started celebrating May 30 as Memorial Day, though a few southern states still kept separate dates to honor Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.
Since 1971, when Congress passed the National Holiday Act, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday of May (rather than always on May 30) to ensure a three-day federal holiday.
Fifteen years ago, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye introduced a bill to restore Memorial Day observance back to May 30.
“In our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer,” Inouye is quoted when he introduced his bill in 1999.
The bill failed to advance, and Inouye unsuccessfully tried to revive it in subsequent years.