It was the Civil War originally, when this holiday was begun, known as Decoration Day, it was to honor all soldiers who fought in this nation's bloodiest conflict.
The name has changed, the wars have multiplied, and the observance has taken on a kind of generic tone. Honor the dead, honor the "Old Soldiers," honor all those who fought to keep the country united and free.
When you start talking about honoring soldiers, you must include combat journalist Ernie Pyle.
Pyle was the most celebrated war journalist of World War II. He sent his dispatches from every front, sharing the foxholes and the rest of the discomforts of that war while getting to know the simple front-line soldier.
He was what we call today "embedded" with the 177th Infantry on a Pacific island west of Okinawa when killed by a sniper's bullet in April of 1945. He did not get to see all those simple old foot soldiers make it home. Nor was he able to relish in the unprecedented successes of the "Greatest Generation" and their harsh realities of not only the death and ungodly physical injuries, but the lifelong psychological haunting of what we now know is PTSD.
Remember that of the 16 million active American veterans serving in World War II; only 558,000 remain alive today with 362 dying every day. In Iowa today, we have 7,568 living WWII veterans left. Their selfless virtues are worthy of us whom followed them, whom had them as teachers, police officers, construction workers and all other vocations while we were becoming of age. Then rendering our own service in Korea, Vietnam and the OIF/OEF to cherish having a day to honor them every year on what is now called Veterans Day.
In his five-year supply of "hometown" dispatches, Pyle had immortalized the American GI coupling common man prose and detailed facts with the dark, but powerful warfare cartoons of Bill Mauldin.
Make no mistake; Pyle did not glorify the soldiers he wrote about, nor did he glorify war. His strength and the gift he brought to his readers on the home front, was the easy way he had of looking over a new place and understanding quickly how things were, a way of standing in the corner and listening. His skill was putting himself in the line soldiers' boots.
Pyle's dispatches were a cross section of America and printed in nearly every newspaper of the day at a time when newspapers were No. 1. Loved ones in the states were anxious for every article as they were sure that Ernie, the G.I. journalist, would interview and write about their soldier.
The writings were real and diverse. No hometown overlooked. No race overlooked as black, Hispanic, Jewish, and all immigrant soldiers were equally likely to have Ernie Pyle cross their path and get their news home via the highly covered and anticipated dispatches. No sound bites, no sensationalism, no distortions. Just getting the words of our line soldiers home to their loved ones and our patriotic population.
After the war ended, an officer serving in three wars, then over 60, returned home as a gentleman rancher and forever would talk of his conversations with Ernie Pyle as the glue that held him together.
This officer's three wars made him an expert on soldiering. He was appalled, his family remembers, at television coverage that brought the Vietnam War into American living rooms. "We'd never have allowed that, we had Ernie." he would say.
However, when the Korean conflict began, and again when Vietnam escalated into a full-scale war, this soldier, now over 80 years of age said, "You know, if I were just a little younger, I'd go again." These are the soldiers we are losing. The best times in America came at their hands and courage. God bless their America.
J.W. Sayles is a retired university professor and U.S. Treasury agent and also a veteran of the Vietnam War. He lives in Mason City.