Oliver North
QUANTICO NATIONAL CEMETERY -- When I was a kid, we called May 30 "Decoration Day." It was an occasion for Boy Scouts to be up before dawn and report, in uniform, to the American Legion hall. There, Cub Scouts would be paired with older Boy Scouts, organized into detachments of a dozen or so and issued bags of small American flags. The groups then "deployed" in station wagons and pickup trucks to local cemeteries and churchyards, where we placed Old Glory on every veteran's grave. Later in the morning, there was a parade down Main Street, led by a color guard, the high-school band and ranks of veterans from World War I, World War II and the war of the moment, Korea. The Veterans of Foreign Wars sold red poppies to raise funds for the disabled. Politicians made speeches, and citizens prayed in public. It was a solemn annual event that taught us reverence for those who served and sacrificed for our country. It's no longer so.

Begun as a local observance in the aftermath of the Civil War, the first national commemoration took place May 30, 1868, at the direction of Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. Though his General Order No. 11 specified "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion" -- meaning only Union soldiers -- those who tended the burial sites at Arlington, Va., Gettysburg, Pa., and Vicksburg, Miss., decided on their own to decorate the biers of both Union and Confederate war dead.

For five decades, the holiday remained essentially unchanged. But in 1919, as the bodies of young Americans were being returned to the U.S. from the battlefields of World War I, May 30 became a truly national event. It persisted as such until 1971, during Vietnam -- the war America wanted to forget -- when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed by Congress went into effect and turned Memorial Day into a "three-day weekend." Since then, it's become an occasion for appliance, mattress and auto sales, picnics, barbecues and auto races. Thankfully, there are some places besides Arlington National Cemetery where Memorial Day still is observed as a time to honor America's war dead. Here in Triangle, Va., the Marines do it right.


Oliver North

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.