“For survivors of war, every day is Memorial Day.”
Bill Mauldin was in a cemetery and addressing a Memorial Day gathering in 1956 when he made this observation. He went on to add, “By what right did some stray piece of metal go sailing past our heads and hit them?” It’s a question a lot of combat veterans ask themselves and one which rarely produces a satisfactory answer. But he was speaking to a wider audience as well. On that day Mauldin gave voice to the feelings experienced by everyone—fellow GIs, family, loved ones, friends, acquaintances—whose lives are forever changed when the comfortless reality of war takes another life. For these folks, every day is Memorial Day.
Mauldin was a credible spokesman. In 1940, he’d joined the Arizona National Guard—two days before it was federalized. On the strength of a course he’d completed the previous year, he landed an additional duty job as cartoonist for the Division’s newspaper. His characters, Willie and Joe, resonated with soldiers everywhere when they appeared in Stars and Stripes and, in syndication, gave America’s home front some sense of what a dogface put up with on a daily basis. Willie and Joe were un-pressed, rough-shaven and resigned to their circumstances. Yet despite the hardships, they maintained a quiet dignity. Mauldin said of them, “Their nobility and dignity come from the way they live unselfishly and risk their lives to help each other. …They wish to hell they were someplace else, and they wish to hell they would get relief. They wish to hell the mud was dry and they wish to hell their coffee was hot. They want to go home. But they stay in their wet holes and fight, and then they climb out and crawl through minefields and fight some more.” Mauldin, however, wasn’t just an observer—he was an infantryman. He fought in the Italian Campaign and was wounded at Cassino. He didn’t just draw dogfaces, he was one. That’s why in the decades that followed the war he couldn’t forget that every day is Memorial Day.
Today, Memorial Day is a three day weekend and a welcome relief from a long, dry spell between federal holidays. It’s the start of the summer season. That means cook-outs, travel and getting together with friends. It’s a weekend extravaganza of sales for consumers anxious to score a deal. For some who wonder about what the day memorializes, it has a hazy meaning and is easily confused with Veteran’s Day. Many won’t wonder. Many won’t care. But some will remember. They’ll remember those who unselfishly gave their lives to help each other and to help us all. The ones who remember will be those who know that every day is Memorial Day.
We all know that time passes and things change. Vivid memories grow dim. The commemoration of our war-dead that began with parades, flags and speeches, over time becomes aged fingers pressing the raised letters on a plaque while forcing to memory the image of one long-ago departed. The first-hand recollections of the survivors become the second-hand stories of their children and then indistinct reminiscences of grandchildren and finally they’re forgotten. Forgotten, that is, unless we determine to remember—to remember the names, the faces, the lives cut short, and the potentials unfulfilled. To those who have given everything we owe the simple act of remembering. We need to remember that every day is Memorial Day. —Ebert