Memorial Day in America

30 May 2021

Memorial Day is a national holiday observed in the United States on the last Monday in May. This year, Memorial Day is observed on May 31.

It is the day when Americans honor the women and men who have died fighting in America's wars. For most Americans, however, it is the unofficial start of summer.

Carol Everhart is president of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. The organization often refers to the towns in Delaware as "The Nation's Summer Capital" since people from Washington, D.C. will likely spend the summer along their beaches.

Everhart said, "We expect very, very high visits this summer." She pointed out that some could not wait to start their summer vacation after the year-long pandemic. People, she said, have visited the Delaware coasts as early as January, shortly after the start of the COVID-19 vaccination program.

In 2019, the Delaware beaches had nearly 8 million summer visitors. With vaccination and without cloth face coverings or social distancing, Everhart said she expects to have as many as 9 million visitors this year.

FILE - People try to keep a social distance due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as they gather on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, U.S. January 2, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
FILE - People try to keep a social distance due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as they gather on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, U.S. January 2, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Memorial Day tradition

Back in the nation's capital of Washington, D.C., Memorial Day tradition continues with the observance at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River. It is the most famous burial place in America. Before the pandemic, more than 4 million people visited the cemetery every year.

The tradition began on May 30th, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in the cemetery. It was called Decoration Day back then.

Since 1948, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers from the 3rd US Infantry, The Old Guard, have placed small American flags in front of every headstone in the cemetery.

Lines of simple white headstones mark the soldiers' graves. But the 80-hectare cemetery also serves as a burial place for people of national and historical importance.

Two presidents are buried there, William Howard Taft in 1930 and John F. Kennedy in 1963. Other famous people buried at the cemetery include world champion boxer Joe Louis, North Pole explorer Robert E. Peary and the seven astronauts who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

Nearly 4,000 former slaves are also buried at Arlington. One of them is James Parks. He dug the first graves in the cemetery.

Other well-known memorials

The best-known memorial in the nation's capital, however, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial which opened in 1982.

In 1980, a group of former soldiers announced a competition to design a memorial. The winner was Maya Lin, a 21-year-old student at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Lin designed a memorial formed by two walls of black stone about 76 meters long. The walls meet to form a V. The names of more than 58,000 Americans killed or declared missing-in-action are cut into the stone.

Almost any time of day, you can see people looking for the name of a family member or friend who died in the war. Once they find the name, many rub a pencil on paper over the letters to copy it.

Many people leave remembrances at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

After the success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Congress approved a memorial to the Korean War veterans which opened in July of 1995. The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953. The memorial honors those who died. It also honors those who survived.

The Korean War has been called the last foot soldier's war. The memorial includes a group of 19 statues of soldiers. People who drive along a road near the memorial sometimes think the statues are real soldiers.

The Women in Military Service for America Memorial opened in 1997. The memorial is near the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery. It recognizes the service of all the women who have taken part in the nation's wars. About two million women have served or currently serve in the armed forces.

WW I and II memorials

One of the lesser-known memorials on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is often called "the temple." The round stone structure honors people from the District of Columbia who died in World War One.

The war was fought from 1914 to 1918. The memorial was completed in 1931. It is the only District of Columbia memorial on the National Mall.

Between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument on the National Mall is the World War Two Memorial. The United States entered the war after Japan bombed the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7th, 1941.

Sixteen million men and women served in the American military between 1941 and 1945. More than 400,000 died.

The World War Two Memorial is built of bronze and granite. In the center, at ground level, is a round pool of water. Except in very cold weather, water shoots from a circle of fountains in the middle.

When the sun is just right, rainbows of color dance in the air. Fifty-six stone pillars rise around the pool. They represent each of the American states and territories, plus the District of Columbia, at the time of the war. On two tall arches appear the names of where the fighting took place. One says Atlantic; the other says Pacific.

There are not yet memorials for soldiers who died in America's most recent wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan. The soldiers are buried in Section 60 of Arlington Cemetery. The section is often called "the saddest place in America."

On Memorial Day, Americans will stop for one minute at three o'clock local time for the National Moment of Remembrance to honor the soldiers who have died in service to the country, no matter what wars they served in.

I'm Anna Matteo. And I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

Shelley Gollust, Jerilyn Watson, Christopher Jones-Cruise, and Hai Do wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


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