When your grandfather is a retired military general, it’s expected you’ll remember the true meaning of Memorial Day beyond just taking the day off work and relaxing.
This year, though, I found myself spending the holiday in my bed trying to recover from a cold that was plaguing me. In looking back through the old editions of The Lebanon Democrat this week, I came across an article by Greg Smith, an Associated Press writer, from May 31, 1993 that serves as a reminder of what Memorial Day should be all about. Here’s part of his story.
When the color guard passed by and bugler blew taps on Memorial Day in 1993, Maynard Dunham thought of battles fought in France and Germany 76 years prior.
“I get sentimental. I cry. I can’t help it,” said the then-98-year-old ex-Marine.
Dunham, who was among the shrinking number of World War I veterans, still drove, dated and climbed the 15 steps to his tidy apartment where he had lived alone for 16 years.
From 1917 to 1919, he served in the 84th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Regiment Marines. His battalion was among some 10,000 troops who fought the Germans for 20 days in the Battle of Belleau Woods near Paris and in other campaigns in France.
Dunham said they gave the Germans all they could handle and earned the nickname “die Teufelhunde” – the devil dogs.
This was not simply the proud boast of an old man.
“Belleau Woods was a very significant battle,” said Dan Crawford of the Marine Corps Historical Center in Washington D.C. “It was the first major offensive action of the war for the Marines. It’s generally considered the halt to the German offensive that resulted in Paris being spared.”
Neither Crawford nor Dunham know how many Devil Dogs might still be living, but Dunham remembered the battle well.
“It was hell,” said Dunham. “Families carrying all they could on bicycles, on carts; old people, young people coming down the road. We took to the ditches on either side so they could have the road.
“Young folks like we were weren’t automatic killers. But Belleau Woods was the first time; that’s when we knew we were going to have to kill people – and we did. It went on and on. You can’t forger those things,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
A bullet grazed his scalp and shrapnel broke his right arm. At age 35, his hearing started fading, residual damage from a shell that exploded near his trench.
He won the Purple Heart and Medal of Valor and the French Croix de Guerre, awards he kept with his dog tags and other mementos in an old wooden box. Several big albums were filled with faded black-and-white photographs that chronicled his war years.
May 30, the traditional Memorial Day, was always special to Durham. That’s the day he arrived at Paris Island, South Carolina, boot camp; the day his unit was ordered to Belleau Woods; the day that Jacqueline, the first of his five children, was born.
He was nostalgic for the times when Memorial Day was truly a national celebration, when citizens paused to remember those killed in battle, when it was more than just an excuse to take a day off and head for the beach or the lake.
“Years ago it was a big day,” said Dunham. “There were flowers for everybody’s grave, especially the soldiers’. There were prayers. But now, the world is too busy to show respect.”
Jacob Smith is a staff writer for The Democrat. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @wilsonnewsroom.