“Humble Expressions of Reverence from a Grateful People”: The Observance of Memorial Day in Greater Los Angeles, 30 May 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in yesterday’s post, the Memorial Day weekend is generally seen as the beginning of summer and our parks, beaches and other public places are often filled with people marking the start of that season with picnics, barbeques and other events. How many of us take time on this day to remember and appreciate those in the nation’s armed services who sacrificed their lives in defense of the country is, of course, another matter.

Modern Americans are not given to participating in the kinds of ceremonies that would be found in days past and today’s post looks at the commemorations that took place in greater Los Angeles for Memorial Day in 1924. As noted here before, the holiday began as Decoration Day in 1868 to honor the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died during the Civil War, which ended three years prior. It was decided to have the 30th of May be the settled date because of allowing for time for the blooming of flowers decorating soldiers’ graves.

By the end of the First World War, the term Memorial Day began to be used more commonly, though the holiday was not federally recognized until 1938. Another three decades past before Memorial Day officially replaced Decoration Day and before it was decided to have the holiday established as the last Monday in May. This is why in 1924 events to honor our soldiers who died on active duty was held on a Friday.

Today’s featured artifact from the museum’s holdings is an official program for the observance ceremony held at the Coliseum, completed the prior year as a memorial to veterans of the recent world war, at Exposition Park in Los Angeles. The event began at 12:30 p.m. with community singing and on the reverse are the lyrics to a half-dozen patriotic songs, including “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee), “America, the Beautiful,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

Forty minutes later was the procession of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic, accompanied by Sons of Veterans, with it being nearly sixty years since the end of the Civil War. At 1:30, there was a march by a “Mexican Band,” listed separately from the inauguration of a “Grand Military Parade” including the grand marshal and his staff comprised of veteran Army officers. Just after two p.m., following an invocation, Col. Perry W. Weidner, chair of the General Memorial Day Committee spoke and he was followed by a reading of the order of General John A. Logan that ushered in Decoration Day, fifty-six years prior.

After the reading, Acting Mayor of Los Angeles Boyle Workman, grand-nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman and who presided over the City Council for most of his tenure on that body from 1919 to 1927, have an address of welcome. This was followed by a reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s famed (and marvel of brevity and power) Gettysburg Address. The day’s main oration was provided by George W. Grannis, listed as the “Patriotic Instructor” for the California and Nevada department of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1924.

When Grannis finished his remarks, there was a “Spectacular Review, Dress Parade and Flag Ceremony,” conducted by the 160th Infantry Regiment of the California National Guard. At 3:30, there was the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our country’s national anthem and then the performance of taps by the regiment’s chief bugler as a poignant and reflective completion to the commemoration of those who perished in the service of the nation.

In its coverage that evening, the Los Angeles Express remarked that “Memorial day was being observed in Los Angeles and throughout the southland with impressive manifestations of patriotism and reverence for the nation’s soldiers and sailors who have ‘lost their range in the west.” It added that “the day was given over to parades and various forms of patriotic exercises at all the cemeteries, and upon the graves of all the departed were strewn wreaths and bouquets of flowers—humble expressions of reverence from a grateful people.”

Civil War veteran and relative of President Franklin Pierce, John T. Pierce, laid a wreath for a deceased fellow soldier who fell at the Battle of Shiloh, in which Pierce fought, for Memorial Day, Los Angeles Express, 30 May 1924.

With respect to the Coliseum ceremonies, the paper noted that, while attendees “witnessed a huge parade of veterans of all wars who still survive,” there was also the presence of “the fast-vanishing hosts of bygone days” in the form of those living remnants of those who fought in the Civil War. Also highlighted were thousands of school children, called to appear by Los Angeles city schools superintendent Susan M. Dorsey, who sat in a special section of the stadium to observe the happenings at the event.

The Express also reported on an earlier ceremony held at Pershing Square, renamed a half decade earlier (it was previously known as Central Park) for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during the world war. There were four primary orators including Acting Mayor Workman, who told the assemblage, “let each one of us determine on this Memorial day to remember the living as well as the dead, and remembering let us serve those who served us.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 31 May 1924.

Noting the challenges of returning soldiers after the late war in terms of finding jobs and in other ways, he stated that veterans did not seek pity, but opportunity. He added that “your duty to these men is to help them help themselves. How many of you are willing to play the role of big brother towards even one disabled man, to help him see life as business men see it?” This interesting reference to commerce was followed by the admonition that the issue was not about charity, but “your help and your money is desired to provide an opportunity for them to earn their way.” He concluded by remarking “we must not forget those men who bear the scars of war.”

Another local ceremony was at Rosedale Cemetery west of downtown where Spanish-American War veterans gathered “to decorate soldiers’ and sailors’ graves and conduct appropriate ceremonies,” though one has to wonder why that adjective was found to be necessary. At the Harbor View Cemetery in San Pedro, similar proceedings followed a parade through that community’s streets. In Hollywood, there was a parade after which a memorial flagpole at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue was dedicated (the triangle there, however, now has a Hollywood-themed sculpture) and noted stage actor Frederick Warde, widely known for playing Junipero Serra at the popular but paternalistic “Mission Play” at San Gabriel, was the featured speaker. Finally, in Sawtelle at the national Soldiers’ Home, there was a flag ceremony and services at the facility for veterans needing medical and mental health care.

Express, 30 May 1924.

A separate editorial by the Express , accompanied by a solemn cartoon of Uncle Sam laying a wreath at a military cemetery, observed that “the observance that was instituted in 1868 . . . has been extended by usage and custom so that like homage [beyond those who died in the Civil War] is paid in honor of all our soldier dead.” It quoted President Calvin Coolidge in his remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, including his statements about the Confederate “grays” who believed in their cause, died for it, and were buried with their Union Army counterparts, but, the president added, “their country lives.”

In its coverage, the Los Angeles Times also reported on Coolidge’s speech, which included the statement that,

In these days little need exists for extolling the blessings of our Federal Union. Its benefits are known and recognized by all its citizens who are worthy of serious attention. No one seriously considers withdrawing from it. But it is not enough that it should be free from attack—it must be approved and supported by a national spirit. Our prime allegiance must be to the whole country. A sentiment of sectionalism is not harmless because it is unarmed. Resistance to the righteous authority of Federal law is not innocent because it is not accompanied by secession. We need a more definite realization that all of country must stand or fall together, and that it is the duty of the government to promote the welfare of each part and the duty of the citizen to remember that he must be first of all an American.

While these remarks and others made by the president and speakers in greater Los Angeles, as well, were specific to an era in which concerns over spreading communism were the greatest perceived threat, these words, uttered by a chief executive known as “Silent Cal” and who is largely forgotten, are well worth pondering in our own time, in which the particular conditions are different, but the abiding concern very much the same.

Pomona Bulletin, 31 May 1924.

The Times‘ coverage of the Coliseum commemoration was, typically, laden with lofty prose, as it noted that Memorial Day “came with the echo of Lincoln’s immortal words, borne upon the wings of memory. It remained until the sweetly scented garlands began to wither upon the graves of those who were being remembered, until the footfalls of veterans of many wars, plodding homeward from many shrines of reverence, were heard no more. It went as the last soft note of ‘taps’ reverberated across the twilight-tinted hills of California.”

The paper added that, while there were increasingly dwindling numbers of those who fought in the Civil and Spanish-American wars, a new generation of veterans of the world war were filling those places vacated by the grizzled survivors of those 19th century conflicts. It placed the attendance figure for the Coliseum ceremony at 25,000 (another paper guessed at 30,000, exclusive of the 10,000 veterans and others who participated in the parade) and proclaimed that it was “the crowning achievement of the Memorial Day exercises.”

Whittier News, 31 May 1924.

More flowing and flowery commentary followed, including that the procession represented service by which “the nation had prospered and progressed through the dismal days of conflict and the golden days of peace. It was proven in the glorious phraces [sic] of eloquence that went thundering, aided by modern science, across the vast Coliseum and into the spaces beyond.” The Times devoted much more space to the various groups, from the aging Civil War veterans to the youngsters in the area’s military schools (the Temples sent their three sons to such institutions for several years during and after the world war).

Workman was briefly quoted from his address with the acting mayor proclaiming that “the fact that we are gathered here to honor the memory of our heroic dead is proof that the spirit of our fathers—the spirit of America—still lives, and is a living principle in our lives.” It was added that he ended his remarks by appealing to the crown to support the California Hut, a disabled veterans organization, discussed here before, which made and sold products made by them and which provided jobs for those who returned from the world war.

Monrovia News, 31 May 1924.

Grannis, a Civil War veteran, stated that “Memorial Day should be the most sacred day of the year” and implored his hearers to make sure it was maintained and honored.” He added that “we have drifted away from the idea of representative government,” noting that “only 35 per cent of our citizenship participates in the administration of our government,” this by voting, while “there are men in the Senate who are there by less than 10 per cent of their constituencies.”

He continued by telling the audience that “the supreme need of the hour is unselfish patriotism” and that, as the presidential election was months away, “we need an American in the White House” and that Americans of unstinting patriotic fervor were required at all levels of government, as well as “in our schools, our books.” Finally, he concluded, “we need Americans in every one of our homes.”

Venice Vanguard, 31 May 1924.

The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News reported very briefly on the remembrance ceremony with its reporter Eleanor M. Barnes writing “the greatest demonstration of the day in Los Angeles was at the Coliseum.” It noted that, in addition to the aspects held on the ground, “airplanes hovered [!] above the Coliseum while the services were in process, their purring presence sounding like a requiem.” Otherwise, coverage was directed toward other events within the city, though there was a close-up photo of Acting Mayor Workman in the accompanying photo collage.

Publisher Cornelius W. Vanderbilt, Jr., of that powerful and wealthy family and only in his mid-twenties, offered, in his Memorial Day editorial, that the importance and necessity of the holiday was obvious, but questioned, “must a man die to be honored by his government?” For all that was given in honor of the war dead, he wondered “why not scatter some seeds of kindness into the lives of the living veterans of our past wars?”

Express, 30 May 1924.

Particularly poignant in this regard was the news of the death of 38-year old World War I veteran Amelio Domenico, who hung himself at his makeshift homeless camp in a Spring Street alley on Memorial Day. The Express was particularly evocative in its statements that “life had turned into a bewildering turmoil” for Domenico, who, it stated, heard martial music and saw flags waving from building and recalled “other days and hardships gloriously borne for love and country” before he, penniless and lonely, took his life.

As for Vanderbilt’s impassioned editorial, he continued,

How can red-blooded Americans sit idly in comfortable homes when they know that thousands of disabled veterans have lost their health and their strength in a righteous war for democracy and are utterly ignored by our outrageous rules of federal procedure?

Memorial day was not complete if our sole duty was to cover the graves with flowers . . . we should not cease in our zeal for justice until every disabled American lad is properly cared for by our government . . . we should given all those invalided women [who served in military capacities] an immediate pension in proportion to their needs.

In his remarkable statement, Vanderbilt called for remembering police officers and firefighters who fell in the line of their duties; for social workers who sought to the poor and needy; for those who helped find jobs for ex-convicts who paid their debts to society; “for the noble women who are striving the prevent the exploitation of child labor.” He ended by proclaiming that, while the commemoration of Memorial Day was to decorate the graves of dead soldiers with flowers, “it also honors those equally beloved soldiers of God who are now striving to make this a better world.”

Illustrated Daily News, 31 May 1924.

Parades, floral decorations at soldiers’ graves, speeches and other ceremonies were discussed in newspapers published in Pomona, Monrovia, Whittier, Long Beach and other greater Los Angeles cities and towns. At the Quaker City, former Nebraska congressional representative, Edmund H. Hinshaw, a resident of Los Angeles, asked a crowd at the Scenic Theatre (which opened in 1920, was long known as the Roxy, and was burned by an arsonist in 1971), “don’t you feel more secure behind the mighty guns of Fort MacArthur [at San Pedro]? Why do thousands daily visit, at San Pedro, our dread Pacific fleet?” He added, “we seek not vulgar glory, or alien land. We will interfere in no man’s quarrel. We will give of our substance and good will. We will not give more gold and men for settlement of ancient feuds, or be entered into wars of others’ making.”

In Monrovia, residents packed into a theatre there for singing, music and speeches, including one by the Rev. J.W. Haman of the Presbyterian Church on the importance of patriotism. Haman told the crowd, “let us never forget that there are treasured up in the great soul of this American Republic all the unconscious influence of the great sacrifice and heroic deeds of the past. We should ever regard it as our solemn duty to keep intact this memorable custom of observing Memorial Day.

Times, 31 May 1924.

Pastor James W. Small of the Christian Church and an Army chaplain in the world war spoke about the fact that “we think it is altogether proper” that Memorial Day is “to be a National holiday.” He made the interesting remark that, had it not been for the sacrifices of soldiers during the Civil War, “our country would have been like the South American republics, divided into little sections that never could have commanded the respect we have in the world today.” It was due to that war that “the commercial and spiritual supremacy which we have” was maintained and he added “I am glad today to be associated with the boys in khaki who made the Kaiser see the Stars and feel the Stripes [applause] of the Banner that has never trailed the dust [Great applause.]”

The Venice Vanguard offered in its Memorial Day editorial that “the youngest soldier of the civil war is an old man . . . in a few seasons there will be not one soldier of the civil war surviving. But the day, and all it implies will survive, because patriotism does not die, and humanity is grateful.” The paper added, “there are other soldiers,” such as from the Spanish-American War and the world war, of which “recollection is too fresh to be touched upon, for the sorrow that was a heritage from it, still abides, and is not effaced by the glory heroes won.” It concluded that, long after the last of the Civil War veterans were gone, “still will Memorial day be observed with thankfulness that the country has produced men who render it secure in every emergency; brave men, who living or dead have a place in the collective hearts of a mighty people.”

Related cartoon commentary from the day after Memorial Day from the Illustrated Daily News, 31 May 1924.

Nearly a century later, reading these accounts of the observations of Memorial Day held in greater Los Angeles is a reminder not just of how these commemorations were conducted then, but how much of the sentiments expressed resonate now as we remember those who gave their lives in service to their country.

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