Memorial Day

Today I want to talk with you about four days of observance. Two are observed nation wide and frequently confused with each other by the public. One is ostracized by those who do not know our national history and prefer their erroneous version to the one documented by our nation as the events happened. The fourth is an observance of my own. It will never be a national holiday, but to me it is a very personal and special day of gratitude and grief.

Memorial Day in the United States is next month. It is a day set aside to remember those who have died while in the military service. Originally honoring only war dead, but in the 20th century this was extended to all of those who have died while serving in the military. The first national observance of the United States of Memorial Day was on 30 May 1868. The original name was Decoration Day, by the end of the second world war it was called Memorial Day by most people. On 28 June 1968 congress officially changed the name to Memorial Day and extended it to included all Americans have died in military service – regardless of the color of their uniform.

Veteran’s Day in the United States is the day we honor those who served in the military and survived their service alive, though not always intact. While Memorial Day is the last Monday of May Veteran’s Day is always November 11. Originally known as Armistice Day, it is the day that World War One ended, “at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.”

The third day of observance was first held on 25 April 1866, two years, one month, and five days before Decoration Day. Known as Memorial Day at the time, this day of observance was created by the hard work of women honoring their fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands who had died on the field of battle. Later when Decoration Day began to be called Memorial Day these women changed the name of their day of Observance to Confederate Memorial Day.

Which brings us to the fourth and last day of observance we will talk about today. You will not find this day on any calendar. The post office and banks do not close for this day. Today in a place near the Maine/New Hampshire border a wreath will be laid, speeches made, and tears shed for the 129 men who died onboard the USS Thresher SSN-593. The date 10 April 1963, and the event that took place that day are well known not just by the families of those 129  but by submariners throughout the world. Like the space shuttle Challenger and the passenger steamship Titanic, what happened to the USS Thresher happened because our technology had grown faster than our understanding of the technology. In the United States the investigation into the loss of the Thresher lead the way to a greater understanding of our new technology and was the cause for the creation of the SUBSAFE Program. A program that was designed to prevent just such an accident from happening again.

When the USS Scorpion SSN-589 was lost five years later it was one of only two submarines in the United States Navy that had not been through the SUBSAFE Program.
Submariners from other navies know this date as well. I have had submariners from Russia, United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries relate to me in vivid detail what they were doing when they heard about the loss of the Thresher. Most of those men were in their submarines on patrol at the time. And many of those men also told me about some of the changes made in their navies after the loss of the Thresher. The loss of that ship changed how submarines are designed, built, operated, and maintained – not just in the United States, but around the world.

I have personal first hand experience of impact of those changes and am reminded of just how lucky I am every time I look at my daughter, thanks to the sacrifice of those 129 men. There are quite literally thousands of men alive today, around the world, because of the lessons we learned after the loss of the USS Thresher.

And so it is on 10 April every year that my thoughts are with the men and families of the USS Thresher. Afterwards I also honor the memory of all of the men who have made the same sacrifice, in war and peace. Men aboard such ships as the Hunley, Tang, Scorpion, K-219, Kursk, and many others.

This is a personal day of observance for me. I am not advocating an official observance and would not support one. There was a time in the United States when the flag was lowered to half-staff (half-mast in the navy) for very few reasons. Now those reasons have been greatly expanded. As I write this the flag is again at half-staff as I am sure it will be when you read this. The flag is lowered to half-staff so often the act has lost the meaning it once had. Today people, if they notice, no longer even wonder why anymore. If there were a national day of observance for those lost at the bottom of the sea it would be followed by so many others as to render them all without meaning.

So I do not advocate and would oppose a national day of remembrance for those men. But I will remember those men today 10 April 2016, as I have in the past and will continue in the future on 10 April. In the submarine service we say of our dead that they are on “eternal patrol.”
And so to those men on eternal patrol I say well done shipmate, carry on. Until we meet again.

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