Memorial Day exists not to honor our armed forces personnel in general, but to specifically honor those who have died while carrying out their duty to defend America.
From the first person who perished on Lexington’s village green in 1775 up to the most recent fatality in Afghanistan this very month, the list of the fallen is long and venerable. To observe past Memorial Days I have published letters that were written by soldiers during wartime. Here they are again.
This first one was from Sullivan Ballou, a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, to his wife. He was killed in the Battle of First Bull Run one week after writing it:
July 14, 1861
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And it is hard for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.
I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.
But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights…always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
This next letter was written by Arnold Rahe, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, with instructions that it be delivered to his parents if he did not survive. He was killed in action shortly thereafter:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Strange thing about this letter; if I am alive a month from now you will not receive it, for its coming to you will mean that after my twenty-sixth birthday God has decided I’ve been on earth long enough and He wants me to come up and take the examination for permanent service with Him. It’s hard to write a letter like this; there are a million and one things I want to say; there are so many I ought to say if this is the last letter I ever write to you. I’m telling you that I love you two so very much; not one better than the other but absolutely equally. Some things a man can never thank his parents enough for; they come to be taken for granted through the years; care when you are a child, and countless favors as he grows up. I am recalling now all your prayers, your watchfulness -- all the sacrifices that were made for me when sacrifice was a real thing and not just a word to be used in speeches.
For any and all grief I caused you in this 26 years, I’m most heartily sorry. I know that I can never make up for those little hurts and real wounds, but maybe if God permits me to be with Him above, I can help out there. It’s a funny thing about this mission, but I don’t think I’ll come back alive. Call it an Irishman’s hunch or a pre-sentiment or whatever you will. I believe it is Our Lord and His Blessed Mother giving me a tip to be prepared. In the event that I am killed you can have the consolation of knowing that it was in the “line of duty” to my country. I am saddened because I shall not be with you in your life’s later years, but until we meet I want you to know that I die as I tried to live, the way you taught me. Life has turned out different from the way we planned it, and at 26 I die with many things to live for, but the loss of the few remaining years unlived together is as nothing compared to the eternity to which we go.
As I prepare for this last mission, I am a bit homesick. I have been at other times when I thought of you, when I lost a friend, when I wondered when and how this war would end. But, the whole world is homesick! I have never written like this before, even though I have been through the “valley of the shadows” many times, but this night, Mother and Dad, you are so very close to me and I long so to talk to you. I think of you and of home. America has asked much of our generation, but I am glad to give her all I have because she has given me so much.
Goodnight, dear Mother and Dad. God love you.
Your loving son,
God bless them all, and may they never be forgotten.