Extending Memorial Day

life
LIFE magazine, June 27, 1969, featuring a portrait of U.S. Army specialist William C. Gearing, Jr., one of 242 American servicemen killed in a single week of fighting during the Vietnam War.

In the Ward family, birthdays routinely stretch into weeks, Mother’s Day is an attitude, and even Christmas can be shifted to accommodate the complicated schedules of our extended, blended families …

… So bear with me if I insist on extending Memorial Day past midnight Monday. (I believe they deserve it, those who have died in the service of our country.)

I was 12 the year Life magazine published its controversial project called “A Week’s Dead” in the June 27 1969 issue of the still popular news and lifestyle magazine. The project, stuffed between ads for cigarettes and booze, included vignettes of 242 men who had died “in connection with the conflict in Vietnam” during the week of May 28 to June 3, 1969 – which included that year’s observance of Memorial Day. (There were photographs of most, and basic information for all.)

In the introduction to the 11 full yearbook-style pages (plus a few additional photos), Life editors expressed their concern that the nation was being “numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in in hundreds of homes all over the country” and urged that we “must pause to look into the faces.”

The editors said 242 was an “average” toll for any 7-day period at that point in the war that would ultimately claim more than 58,000 American lives (36,000 had been killed already) and untold more non-American lives in Indochina.

The introduction was followed by 11 pages of photographs and names and details, or just names and details (branch of service and rank, for example) of the 242 soldiers, Marines, and a few sailors who had died in that one week.

They came from such towns as Marion, Kansas – named for a brigadier general of the American Revolution – and Ottumwa, Iowa – hometown of the fictional character of Cpl. “Radar” O’Reilly of the TV show MASH – and Abbeville, Louisiana – settled by transplanted Acadians from Nova Scotia – and Lanett, Alabama – birthplace of the 48th governor of Alabama. They were shown in and out of their dress uniforms, with and without the American flag for which they were fighting – smiling, staring, glaring, with their ages shown that ranged from a very old-looking 18 to a very young-looking 26 –  all draft age. They were all part of the 1969 U.S. troop level of half a million personnel thousands of miles from home, struggling to hold back communism and preserve an independent South Vietnam.

The magazine was almost immediately accused of siding with the anti-war movement (because, perhaps, caring about people who die in war is subversive).

The parents of some of my friends threw out that issue and prohibited their children from seeing it – and canceled their subscriptions.

But when we returned to school in September and arrived at Mrs. Macy’s art class – there were two or three copies of the magazine, and we were told we could work with those however we saw fit. And we did. Some people made small posters featuring a single portrait and other photographs of the war, most of them taken from the many other Life projects that featured the war, which was a daily focus of our lives in those years. One classmate cut the portraits out of part of one page – and then pasted onto a small poster board the magazine page that was left over, with the holes showing where the portraits had been, to stress the element of loss. We worked with the controversy. We extended the controversy. But in Mrs. Macy’s class, we had access to the material and we were able – encouraged – to use our voices to express our feelings.

~

There are many projects – some modern, some older – that are doing (or have done) what Life undertook with its one-week project: naming our war dead, putting faces with the names, putting names with the numbers – personalizing the human cost of war. These many projects range from traditional memorial monuments, such as the Vietnam Wall in D.C., and hundreds of other similar works (including traveling ones), to MIA bracelets available online, to portraits that can be found, often with stories, on Facebook.

To find a project, Google (or Bing) something like “remembering our war dead,” and see where it takes you. If you have trouble finding the results you want, send me an email and I’ll help.

It will be good for you.

It will be especially good for those whose legacies you extend by remembering them by name.

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