HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- Back in the early 1950s, when I was a kid, we called it "Decoration Day." Early in the morning of May 30, the Boy Scouts placed little American flags on the graves of those who had served in wars past. Veterans -- among them our mailman, who fought in World War I -- came door to door, selling red poppies. There was a parade down Main Street, led by a color guard and the high school band. At the town baseball field, speeches were made, prayers were said and we were all reminded of the sacrifices made by those who had gone into harm's way on our behalf. It was a solemn, sacred affair, for which I admit to no small amount of nostalgia.
In the aftermath of Vietnam -- the war we wanted to forget -- much of that changed. In 1971, Congress passed the National Holiday Act, turning Memorial Day into just one more three-day weekend. After that, the spirit of the day dissipated and the holiday became little more than an opportunity for half-price sales at the local mall.
Yet, here in Hawaii, Memorial Day still seems to have a special meaning. Some say that's because the Aloha state boasts more than 100,000 military personnel and their dependents among 1.3 million residents. Others claim it is because of what happened here on Dec. 7, 1941 -- when 2,388 Americans perished in a surprise attack perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Navy. I'm convinced it's some of both. This place is full of people who believe in a quaint notion: Never forget.
For the past week, our FOX News "War Stories" team has been here in Hawaii documenting the work of JPAC -- the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command -- the U.S. military unit responsible for recovering and identifying the 88,000 Americans who have been declared missing in action since the start of World War II. Their commitment to "never forget" is an inspiring lesson for any Memorial Day.
The designation "MIA" -- missing in action -- can be devastating for the family of any member of the U.S. Armed Forces. It can mean a lifetime of uncertainty about what happened to a loved one. But because of the dedicated sleuths here at JPAC, thousands of American families now know what happened to their missing soldier, sailor, airman, Guardsman or Marine.
Begun in 1973 as an effort to account for thousands of MIAs and POWs from Vietnam, JPAC is the smallest Joint Command in the U.S. military -- only 445 members -- yet it boasts the world's largest skeletal forensic laboratory. The scientists, anthropologists, historians and active duty personnel here are devoted to just one purpose: finding and bringing home missing American servicemen.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.