- - Friday, May 23, 2014

The nation’s most anxious Memorial Day may well have occurred 70 years ago, on May 30, the traditional date before Congress in 1968 changed the observance to the last Monday in May. It was a stressful event because American war deaths were mounting, and only the highest levels of officialdom were aware that the D-Day or English Channel invasion of Nazi forces in France might come about a week later and shorten the European war. Who could have foreseen how many American deaths this daring maneuver might result in?

Nearly 300,000 Americans had perished from the time of Pearl Harbor, leading first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on May 30 in her regular newspaper column titled “My Day” to note “an ever-increasing number of graves.”

“Even these graves are but a small percentage of those we cannot decorate, in which the men of our land lie where they have fought all over the world.”

For the chief of staff of the Army, George C. Marshall, the grim mortality statistics hit home. On Memorial Day, he received news that his stepson, Allen Brown, the 27-year-old son of his wife, Katherine, had been killed in action as his tank unit advanced north toward Rome. Marshall also had to deal with the inhumane Nazi announcement on May 30 that German troops would kill every downed airman on sight.

Within these dark clouds of remembrance was a silver military lining, though. For weeks, Allied forces had been engaged in a top-secret, grand deceit of the Nazis. Using inflatable fake replicas of PT boats, tanks, combat vehicles, planes and heavy artillery (all made by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.), the military induced the Nazis to believe that the cross-channel invasion would focus on Pas-de-Calais instead of the actual Normandy site. Phony radio transmissions easily accessible to the Nazis reinforced the deception. American troops were equally uninformed, as illustrated by the remarks of rifleman Dick Stodghill of Ohio: “Memorial Day of 1944 proved memorable. It was a week before D-Day, but we didn’t know that even though everyone was aware the invasion of France was imminent.”

Back home in the states, honoring fallen soldiers illustrated every gradation of patriotic fervor — from 400,000 Chicagoans lining Michigan Avenue to observe a parade of 30,000 marchers to schoolchildren in North Adams, Mass., paying tribute through “sketches, recitations and songs.” Sixty miles from my hometown in Bellaire, Ohio, Pittsburgh marked Memorial Day by witnessing the launching of LST-750 (Landing Ship, Tank) that would be used to transport soldiers, trucks and tanks directly onto beaches. Paid for by bonds purchased by residents from the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia (including schoolchildren like myself who contributed pennies for the bonds), the ship’s history became legendary. Hit six months later by an aerial torpedo and kamikaze airplane, LST-750 simply would not sink. Once the crew abandoned the vessel, it was then intentionally sunk in honor.

Perhaps no Memorial Day remembrance in 1944 was more moving than the diary of Leona Kriesel Cox, a Minnesotan who early in the war volunteered for Red Cross service abroad, assigned to Constantine, Algeria. The 26-year-old Cox (who died just three years ago at age 95) noted that “soldiers marched into the cemetery, each one carried a bouquet of flowers. They circled a picturesque white chapel and came to a halt beside white crosses that marked each grave . As the band played a medley of American war songs, guns were fired in salute. A signal was given and together all the soldiers leaned down, each placed the bouquet he carried on the grave next to where he stood . Truly, it was something I’ll never forget. It made me so proud to be over here .”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.