by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is notable that, in today’s Los Angeles Times, mention of Memorial Day includes a photo of Los Angeles National Cemetery (located at the former Soldiers’ Home in Westwood) which hosted a commemoration this morning; an article about the decoration of 70,000 at the national cemetery in San Diego; and an editorial that states, “we need another Memorial Day in this country, one to remember the victims of gun violence” and concludes, “an official day dedicated to this tragic reality [of 45,000 gun-related deaths in 2020] will remind us that firearms take a daily toll in this country, and perhaps move Americans to action.”
The contrast to coverage in the same paper, and others in the region, just over a century ago is striking. In 1921, the United States was two-and-a-half years removed from the end of the First World War (the “war to end all wars”) and the press put much more emphasis on the commemoration of Memorial Day, and with a decidedly more patriotic push, than what is the case today.
The Times of 30 May 1921, for example, covered the reinterment of Sgt. Morris Lynchik, whose remains were the first brought to Los Angeles by the federal government after the removal of American war dead from France was authorized (not long after, the body of Sgt. Joseph Kauffman, like Lynchik a Jew, whose brother, Milton, was Walter P. Temple’s business manager, was brought back from France and reinterred at the Home of Peace Cemetery.)
After a service, including a prayer from an Army chaplain, a eulogy from a rabbi, and remarks from Mayor Meredith P. Snyder, whose son also died in France during the war, a two-mile long procession began from Pershing Square (formerly Central Park and renamed in honor of General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during the recent war), where Lynchik’s body lay in state for two days, to his final place of rest at Rosedale Cemetery. The cortege included active duty as well as veterans from the Civil War onward and the paper noted that Lynchik’s two brothers, residents of Los Angeles after the war’s end, were both wounded in battle, with one of them seeing Morris fall on the field.
The paper also ran an editorial (significant because of today’s example) called “The New Memorial Day” in which it was pointed out that, after some years beyond the Civil War, the representation of youthful manhood with veterans of that conflict evolved into an increasingly graying and older one. That is, until the Spanish-American War more than thirty years later, but, then, too, there was a similar transformation before the onset of the First World War and American participation (and the boost given the allies that decided the conflict) in 1917-1918.
So, for the Times, the new commemoration as exemplified by “the strapping, stalwart, bronzed youth in khaki who march today, like a reincarnation of those veterans of other days” and it was averred that the term “veterans” didn’t seem to apply, because “the hand of time has hardly touched them; the best years are all before them.” Of course, what did still apply was the memorialization of America’s war dead. While it was noted that “we realize the awful waste, the suffering, the grief, [and] the desolation that are inseparable from war,” it was hoped that “somehow a way may be found, and found speedily, by which wars may become fewer and fewer until in a time not too remote there shall be no more human sacrifices on the altar of liberty.”
The paper also ran a feature on Norton P. Chipman, the “Author of Memorial Day,” and his recollections of his role in the establishment of it. The 87-year old, who nearly died on the battlefield in the Civil War and rose to be a colonel on the staffs of generals Henry W. Halleck and Samuel R. Curtis as well as for the judge advocate because of his legal training, recorded that he was a major officer in the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Civil War veterans association, under General John A. Logan.
Chipman stated that he received a letter in 1868 from an Army comrade living in Cincinnati who suggested the placement of flowers on the graves of soldiers, as was done in Europe. He then, on 5 May, wrote out a rough draft of the General Orders Number 11, approved and signed by Logan, that established what was first known as Decoration Day. He went on, however, to note that a date had to be selected and Chipman chose to “postpone it to a date which would give opportunity for flowers to mature.” Because the last day of May fell on a Sunday, he selected the 30th and “this is the true and only reason for having named May 30 as the date to be observed.” It is now the last Monday of May.
In its coverage, the Los Angeles Express observed,
While the spirits of departed heroes looked down and approved, Los Angeles and environs today paid homage to the nation’s soldier dead.
Tears for the veterans of three wars were shed freely—from the little white-haired women who knelt by the sides of tombs emblazoned with the insignia of the Grand Army to the blue-eyed miss whose lover died on foreign soil.
Unlike other years when “Decoration Day” was generally observed as an occasion for celebration, a spirit of reverence was maintained, more, perhaps, than in the two anniversaries of the day which have passed since the conclusion of the world war.
This included the large parade planned and carried out by many organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, United States War Veterans, Disabled Veterans of the World War, the American Legion, the National Guard, the Sons of Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic. The procession left Pershing Square and went east on Fifth Street to Broadway, then south to Eighth Street, then west to Hope Street, and concluded at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now BIOLA in La Mirada) for exercises, including patriotic music; an invocation; readings of Logan’s Order Number 11 and the Gettysburg Address; orations; a benediction and, of course, taps to end the program.
Also reported on by the Express was the decoration of graves at Inglewood and Forest Lawn memorial parks with, at the latter, a Navy blimp from San Diego dropping thousands of flowers over graves, while at the Naval submarine base at San Pedro, services were held for those who died while serving in that branch of the nation’s armed forces. Photos showed a girl placing flowers on a grave also decorated with flowers and a biplane dropping flowers over the ocean, likely for the naval services.
The Los Angeles Record added that, with the main downtown parade, there was expected some 10,000 veterans, including the “snowy hair and beards” of the GAR contingent, the Spanish-American War veterans “now in the prime of life,” and the “vast tide of young manhood” from the world war, though it also noted the disabled veterans of the latter included those who could not walk and rode in cars or walked using crutches, while others included “the pale faces of men on whom the deadly German gas is still doing its work.”
The paper also pointed out that numerous women who were from veterans group auxiliaries and the Red Cross. Events at Hollywood, Venice, Santa Monica, the Soldiers’ Home at what was still known as Sawtelle, Long Beach and Santa Catalina Island. Also noted was a dinner and dance for Civil War veterans at the Grand Avenue and 9th Street pavilion of “dance king” Fred Solomon. A poem by the well-known Berton Braley on that year’s commemoration included the closing of three verses:
O, dead of many wars who fought
With spirit high and pure.
The noble structure that you wrought
Shall evermore endure!
You held your country’s cause above
All else; we, unafraid
Will keep your country worthy of
The price you gladly paid.
In an editorial, “France Holds American Graves Sacred,” the Venice Vanguard noted that “only the slow chisel of time can carve the slow truth of history. That which we debate hotly and surround with words and eagerness and doubts and disappointments fades and is forgotten. Some simple fact, seldom upon our tongues and too obvious to be discussed, is left standing against the horizon.”
The piece added that the Memorial Day of 1920 was such that there was a “revaluation” based on a “silent power,” especially because so many Americans lie buried in France after falling on the battlefields of that country during the late war. The care taken and the gratitude expressed by the French people was shown in great detail in the piece, which concluded with the assurance, “Oh, Mothers of America, you need not fear. Again the mother hearts in France will leap the wide expanse of sea and utter a prayer for you as they drop their flowers upon our graves this year.”
Separately, the Vanguard noted that recent Memorial Day commemorations focused on the declining number of surviving Civil War veterans, but the world war “has given an added significance to the exercises of the day.” There was acknowledgment of those who fought in the Spanish-American War as well as the statement that “it is a proud tradition” that American soldiers “fought for human liberty, not for greed of territory or lust of power” and operated under the proposition of “conquer we must when our cause it is just.” This latter is from the fourth verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Long Beach Press reported that the city “celebrated Memorial day with the dignity and solemnity fitting the deeds of men who died in battle that America might be a united nation, standing for freedom of all nations.” It added that “the fiesta atmosphere which has characterized the observance in other years, was all eliminated” and noted a downtown parade, the decoration of graves with flowers, and the “enthusiastic Americanization meeting” held at the Civic Auditorium, while then stating that “the people of Long Beach observed and did not celebrate,” despite the earlier use of that word.
The Pomona Progress wrote that the city “rested from its labors today to honor the veterans of three wars” and watched as a parade of veterans, women from auxiliaries, reservists and school children marched on Second Street, the heart of the downtown commercial district. While it was recorded that many Pomonans were out of town for the three-day weekend, there was still a substantial number lining the street, while others participated in “the usual Memorial Day service” at Pomona Cemetery, where hundreds of graves were covered in flowers, with a prayer by the pastor of the Church of the Brethren, an address by the pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, a Pomona High student reciting the Gettysburg Address, and patriotic airs by the city concert band.
The featured objects from the Museum’s holdings for this post are a letter and printed resolutions from the General Memorial Committee of the Grand Army of the Republic and Affiliate Organizations, based in Patriotic Hall (now the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall) on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. The letterhead includes the American flag and statement “We Stand for Old Glory”, an insignia for the GAR, the names of principal officers and chairs of committees, and the two dozen or so affiliates. These latter included the Woman’s Relief Corps, Sons of Veterans, Daughters of Veterans, the American Legion and auxiliaries, including for the Army and Navy Union.
The missive, dated 5 March and from Secretary James M. Aubrey to the president of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the United Spanish War Veterans and its Roosevelt Camp, noted that “the time has arrived to organize the 1921 Memorial Day Committee” and asked for a representative of the auxiliary to join the group, which was to have a meeting at the hall on the last day of the month. Once the committee completed its work, it issued, on 5 May, its resolutions for the 53rd observance of the day.
The resolutions noted first the “the approach of Memorial Day, sacredly designated and consecrated . . . to the memory of the Nation’s heroic soldier and sailor dead” and “which recalls to the hearts and minds of all thoughtful citizens the unselfish and willing sacrifices of these dead, for the principles of liberty.” This was followed by acknowledgment of the fact that “the true purpose and intent . . . may be property presented to all persons residing in our vicinity.”
Thirdly, there was the understanding that “when journeying again to kneel at the shrine of those departed who gave their lives that this Nation might live” the date of 30 May was when “we beg to remind our fellow citizens the priceless heritage the sacrifices of our soldier dead has procured” and the lessons learned and pledges renewed of duty and loyalty “especially today when rumors of conflict and strife are again heard.”
What was resolved first was that the committee wanted “to most earnestly and sincerely impress upon our fellow citizens the sacred lessons of the Soldier’s Sabbath” so that “Ministers of the Gospel” were asked to “stimulate that patriotism which is inspired by the soul’s devotion to the righteousness which exalted a Nation.” It added that this was “evidenced in all the military crises of our National life” along with “the glorious liberty which we enjoy” and the “mighty Nation” with “the peaceful scenes . . . gained by wielding the sword of righteousness under the patronage of Heaven.”
Secondly, city school were encouraged to have memorial programs on Friday the 27th to commemorate that “in a Nation like ours the influence” of these events “on the tender mind, heart and soul of the child is a potent factor in instilling and conserving the imperishable blessings of civil and religious liberty.” Moreover, the ceremonies in schools would “make Memorial Day as fragrant with the perfume of flowers as it is hallowed by the tears of tenderness and the tragic moments of a heroic past.”
Lastly, the subscribing organizations “beseech our fellow citizens to desist in desecrating the Soldier’s Sabbath with public pleasure.” Only by recognizing and acknowledging that “the glory of their service is ours in sacred trust” could it be properly commemorated as “no e[n]comium of praise that can be uttered will shed greater luster upon the heritage so bequeathed” than through a total observance of both Memorial Day and the Memorial Sunday before it.
The sentiments expressed in the resolutions, including the explicit linkage of religion and war and the presumption that war was only carried out for noble purposes, and the coverage in the local press, such as the claim that American military actions were never “for greed of territory or lust for power,” in 1921 are, in many ways, very different than those uttered today and the observance of Memorial Day is also of a much altered kind, when done so at all. More headlines, it seems, have been about the large number of cancelled flights or about the nearly 40 million American who were expected to travel during the weekend, which marks the beginning of the summer travel season, than about the remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives in service to their country.