The poppy, an international symbol of remembrance and reverence for those who fought and died in conflicts since World War I, is returning to the National Mall this Memorial Day.
A display of more than 645,000 poppies encased in an 8-foot glass wall stretches 130 feet on the Mall between Lincoln Monument and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, offering a striking reminder of the sacrifices made by American service members across the globe.
Each flower represents a single known U.S. combat casualty since the Great War through the modern-day conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. By logging onto the memorial’s website, visitors can add a virtual poppy to the wall in memory of their loved ones who died in combat.
More than 15,000 people visited the Mall to visit the monument during last year’s Memorial Day holiday.
The poppy wall exhibit, sponsored by the U.S. Automobile Association, has been displayed on the Mall before to commemorate Memorial Day. This year, the poppy memorial has added an element to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion by U.S. forces into Nazi-controlled Europe on June 6, 1944, during World War II.
Along with the poppy wall, a video of interviews with some World War II veterans who served with the 82nd Airborne Division — the Army unit that parachuted into Nazi-occupied France — recounting their actions on that fateful day that turned the tide of the war.
Each time the wall has been erected in the nation’s capital, its impact on visitors has been unforgettable, says one former top Navy officer.
“About everyone is taken aback at the losses we have suffered during war,” said retired Vice Adm. John Bird, who heads the military affairs division at USAA, said of the display. “There is no doubt it is moving.”
Looking at the hundreds of thousands of poppies hammers home “the real meaning of Memorial Day one of our most important and sacred holidays,” Mr. Bird added.
Poppies feature prominently in Canadian military doctor John McCrae’s war memorial “In Flanders Fields,” which was published in 1915 in the midst of World War I. The blood red flower became an international memorial talisman after that, is still the hallmark of Great Britain’s Remembrance Day holiday.
The poem resonated with British and American veterans of the Great War, as it honored those killed during the conflict and grappled with the struggles of survivors.
But “In Flanders Fields” did not register among the American public until the 1918 publication of American humanitarian Moina Michael’s poem “We Shall Keep the Faith,” which references McCrae’s poem in its opening stanzas. “We cherish, too, the poppy red that grows on fields where valor led. It seems to signal to the skies, that blood of heroes never dies,” one line says.
The popularity of Michael’s poem eventually led to the establishment of the Memorial Day in the 1860s. In 2017, Congress approved legislation officially marking the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day.
A century after the end of World War I, the poppy’s symbolism still stirs memories of fallen comrades among Mr. Bird and others who have served.
“I do think of them,” Mr. Bird said. “And more broadly, across the years, I think of all the men and women who have been lost” in America’s campaigns.
“It speaks to a nation’s character on how we take care of the fallen,” and how Americans take pause to remember the sacrifices made in defense of the United States, he added.
Mr. Bird served as the chief of the Navy’s 7th Fleet at U.S. Pacific Command before being named the command’s No. 2 officer. He later served as director of the Navy Staff at service headquarters in Washington before retiring in 2012.
• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at email@example.com.
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