May 29, 2019 — Memorial Day observances took place Monday at local cemeteries, Florence Elks Lodge #1858 and Veteran’s Memorial Park on Bay Street in Historic Old Town Florence. Private observances were also held at lakefront family gatherings and backyard barbecues around town.
The tone was somber at all of the day’s public observances, as the sacrifice being remembered was one that ultimately cost someone’s life.
The first service of the day was a sunrise ceremony at the Pacific Sunset Memorial Park on Highway 126. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Honor Guard were in attendance as the large centrally located flag at the cemetery was lowered to half-staff, while Taps played in the early morning mist.
The Honor Guard then made the short trip to the Elks Lodge to join other members of Florence’s veteran community for a service to honor the fallen from all branches of the military.
Paul Gargis is a retired military man and an advocate for veterans’ issues through his work with VFW and the Band of Brothers. He spoke of the sacrifice of those who serve.
“The service members we honor today came from all walks of life, but they shared several fundamental qualities. They possessed courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication to duty and integrity — all the qualities needed to serve a cause greater than one’s self,” Gargis said.
“Many of them didn’t ask to leave their homes to fight in some distant land,” he continued. “They didn’t go to war because they loved fighting. They were ordinary people that responded in extraordinary ways in extreme times.”
The sentiments shared by Gargis were echoed later at the main focus of Memorial Day observances in Florence, which took place at Veteran’s Memorial Park at 1 p.m.
The service was organized by American Legion Francis M. Yost Post 59 and Florence VFW Post 3232. The service began with the presentation of colors by the VFW Honor Guard and the singing of the national anthem by Danny Wright.
The Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer were next on the program and these were followed by the presentation of Memorial Wreaths by friends and family. The wreaths were then delivered to members of U.S. Coast Guard Station Siuslaw River and a Memorial Day Address was delivered by VFW Commander Tom Benedict.
Wendy Krause pulled the many emotions of the day together as she delivered a poignant rendition of America the Beautiful.
The final act of the service was the laying of the Memorial Wreaths in the Siuslaw River by Coast Guard members.
The first official version of Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and it was originally a tribute to soldiers that fought and died, for both sides, in the Civil War. Estimates of the military dead range from 650,000 to more than a million when civilian and war associated deaths are tallied.
The first Decoration Day was held on May 30, 1868, primarily because it was a spring date on which there had been no significant battles fought during the Civil War.
Future President James Garfield had been a general in the Union Army and he spoke at the first Decoration Day event while serving as a Congressman from the State of Ohio.
Garfield began his military service as a lieutenant, teaching himself strategy and tactics by reading histories of the Napoleonic campaigns and textbooks from West Point. He eventually rose to the rank of major general before being elected to the highest office in the land in 1860.
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung,” Garfield said. “With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens.”
On the first Decoration Day, 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers interred at Arlington National Cemetery. That tradition continued this year with flags and flowers placed on local gravesites and headstones by members of the VFW and American Legion.
By 1890, every state had some sort of observance honoring those who died while serving in either the Union or Confederate military. After America entered World War I, the holiday began an evolution into a commemoration for all who served in every American conflict.
The current federal holiday was officially established in 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, in order to create a three-day holiday for federal workers.
The activities associated with the day have changed over the years, although locally, veterans are still the focus of the day in and around Florence.
According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, there are 20 million veterans in the U.S. today and Florence still has a large veteran’s population.
Over time, the somber tone of these earlier incarnations of Memorial Day have in some instances given way to a more festive interpretation of the day. Barbecues, pool parties and family gatherings have become the focus of many, leaving behind the mourning and appreciation for the sacrifice of those who served and died.
This shift makes for mixed feelings for many as some wish to acknowledge the original intent of the day, while still recognizing the beginning of the summer season.
Others have little affinity for the traditional holiday, choosing instead to see the day as the gateway to summertime. The day has become almost as well-known for being the start of summer as it is for its original purpose, honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom by giving their life for their country.
Gargis captured the debt we as Americans owe: “There is no freedom without bravery and those we honor today were brave when it counted the most. We can take great pride in these heroes, these men and women, who believed they were just doing their duty.”
There is also little doubt that without the sacrifice of the those that served, those who barbecue would not be free to enjoy their version of Memorial Day.
To find out more information about obtaining one or more of the 77 remaining tiles available on the fifth and final panel at Veterans Memorial Park, pick up an application at the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center, 290 Highway 101, or call Tony Cavarno at 541-997-1677.