“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.”
The somber first stanza of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields reminds us of what Memorial Day is all about — honoring our war dead. Monday’s holiday is not about three-day weekends, trips to the beach, cookouts or car racing. It is not even about honoring our military veterans (honored in November). It is instead about remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, so that we can live in liberty in a free land.
Our God-given liberties, those for which so many have died, are found in the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
It is for these ideals that brave men and women have died, and it is why we honor their sacrifice on Memorial Day.
You can take part in honoring them by attending a local Memorial Day service, including one held at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno beginning at 10:30 a.m. The program sponsored by the Avenue of the Flags Committee, features Col. Steven Butow, commander, 129th Rescue Wing, California Air National Guard at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, and Gold Star father Kevin Graves.
Graves is founder of Some Gave All — The Joey Graves Foundation, which is a coalition of Gold Star families, veterans and patriotic Americans, which he started after the death of his son, U.S. Army Specialist Joseph Graves in 2006.
The Golden Gate National Cemetery is a fitting place for such a ceremony, as it is the final resting place for many Americans killed in action, some famous but most just ordinary men and women who did their duty by answering the call of their country. These include Sgt. Paul Foster from San Mateo, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division.
Sgt. Foster received the Medal of Honor for his actions in October 1967 in Vietnam, when according to the citation, “a hand grenade landed in the midst of Sergeant Foster and his five companions. Realizing the danger, he shouted a warning, threw his armored vest over the grenade, and unhesitatingly placed his own body over the armored vest. When the grenade exploded, Sergeant Foster absorbed the entire blast with his own body and was mortally wounded. His heroic actions undoubtedly saved his comrades from further injury or possible death.”
The cemetery also contains the remains of 24 black sailors who loaded munitions in degrading and unsafe conditions during World War II. They died while loading Liberty ships in the Port Chicago munitions explosion of July 17, 1944. Badly disfigured, they were unidentifiable and are buried as unknowns.
Just a few months after the terrible battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln reflected on the sacrifices of those who had died. He recognized that the meaning of their sacrifice was lived out day to day by the living — that our actions are what honor the sacrifice of those who have died in defense of our freedom and liberty, like Sgt. Foster and the 24 sailors.
In what is now known as the Gettysburg Address, he made clear that, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
This Memorial Day, what do you resolve, what will you do, to ensure that our honored dead will not have died in vain?
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.