Memorial Day is, by, definition, a day to remember. In some countries, the somber holiday is christened Remembrance Day. Could there, then, have been a more solemn Memorial Day than the one 75 years ago?
Memorial Day, 1944, found Americans not just looking back to remember their war dead, but looking ahead — knowing that there were more, many more, to come. On Memorial Day 1944, Americans had been at war for two and a half years. In that time, we had fought back from Pearl Harbor to defeat the Japanese at Midway and begin “island-hopping” across the Pacific. We had liberated North Africa and moved into Italy. But Americans on Memorial Day 1944 also knew that the worst lay ahead. Everyone assumed that the war in the Pacific would culminate with an invasion of Japan; the public didn’t know about the scientists who were at work on a single, terrible bomb that could wipe out an entire city. In Europe, American troops were pushing up the Italian peninsula, but many more were in Britain, waiting to cross the English Channel for the inevitable assault on Germany itself.
That’s why Memorial Day, 1944, was a holiday that was barely observed. “Pageantry curtailed as state pays tribute to war dead,” headlined the Roanoke Times. There were no parades, and few public observances of any kind in western Virginia. Government offices and banks closed, but schools and other businesses stayed open as usual. Life went on, knowing that many would soon die. Memorial Day that year fell on a Tuesday. On Sunday, the local “Committee on Patriotic Affairs” arranged for planes to drop flowers on city cemeteries. The only public observance of Memorial Day was a speech by the local congressman.
Roanokers woke up that May morning to the banner headline: “Nazi Retreat Route Cut.” Americans in Italy were now within 16 miles of Rome. More than 2,200 American planes bombed aircraft factories in Germany — 46 didn’t come back. The newspapers from Memorial Day, 1944, convey a sense of foreboding. Whatever was happening that day was simply prelude for something bigger to come and everyone knew it. A front page story declared that an American naval convoy “carrying the latest and most secret Allied invasion weapons” had safely reached Great Britain. There was another story about Gen. Dwight Eisenhower inspecting Canadian troops, one in a series of pre-invasion inspection visits he was making across England. “As each spin of the clock brings ‘D Day’ closer, the Nazis sent fleets of planes across Britain Sunday night,” the Associated Press reported, “in an apparent attempt to uncover Allied invasion secrets.” The AP reported that the Germans seemed especially nervous; they’d guessed the invasion would come on May 29 and it hadn’t.
The news at home was a mix of the mundane, and the extraordinary. Peas and cherries were reported available on the Roanoke City Market. The Roanoke Red Sox and Lynchburg Cardinals played a holiday double-header at Maher Field; they’d wind up splitting the twinbill. In Kansas, the head of the state’s semi-pro baseball league said he might run for the state legislature on a platform of repealing a ban on Sunday baseball. In Pennsylvania, the court for Cambria County had to deal with the problem of Daisytown. All seven men on the town council had quit “in a huff” over a dispute over road funds. “The court solved the problem by appointing seven new council members — all women.”
Graduations and recitals went on as scheduled, but the war permeated life on the home front. It was announced that collection of “household fats” had reached a new high in April. The Roanoke-Lynchburg area had saved the most — 48,781 pounds of grease and whatever else. Advice columnist Ruth Millet dealt with a letter from a woman defending “service wives who run around with other men while their husbands are away at war” on the grounds that the women needed “masculine admiration.”
Not everyone was behind the war effort. Roanoke County deputies chased down a local military deserter near Salem and shot him in the leg before taking him off to jail. It was the third time he had run away from his Army base in Maryland. In Botetourt County, the FBI charged a factory worker with sabotage; he confessed to dumping bolts into a motor at James River Hydrate and Supply in Buchanan. The company was making lime for the military, although authorities didn’t say what his motive might have been.
There were multiple strikes at factories in Detroit making military vehicles. There also was a strike at the Dan River textile plant in Danville; 3,000 white employees refused to work with 20 African-American spinners who had been hired — even though the company assured the white workers that their black co-workers would be segregated in another room. A union leader from Pennsylvania tried to intercede but gave up in despair. “Racial issues have been in the south for 150 years. We don’t believe anything will change it overnight,” he said.
That evening, reserve units conducted “maneuvers” in Roanoke to show off how they’d deal with an “emergency” in the city. At their conclusion, U.S. Rep. Clifton Woodrum, D-Roanoke, spoke. Allied armies “tonight are on the march and they will not end the march this time until they have reached Berlin,” he declared. The “this time” referred to the end of World War I. Some Americans felt, in hindsight, they’d been too hasty to wrap up that war, and too eager to disengage from world affairs altogether. “We were asleep at the switch after the end of World War I,” Woodrum said. “We settled back smugly in the thought that we had fought the war to end all wars. We disbanded our army; we sank our navy; we entered into all sorts of treaties for peace. All the while the belligerent nations were planning to plunge the world into another bloody conflict.” Woodrum exaggerated somewhat, as politicians are prone to do, but there was still a lot of truth in what he had to say.
Some people that Memorial Day were looking ahead with dread to D-Day in Europe and whatever was to come in the Pacific, but Woodrum was looking even further ahead to what America’s role in the post-war world would be. “We shall do everything in our power to prevent another war, and I think after the war, we will have an army, a navy and an air force big enough to tell the world, we not only want peace but we are going to have peace.” Eight days later, Allied armies — with “the Bedford boys” at the front — were wading ashore in Normandy.