Honoring Memorial Day faces ever greater challenges—the proliferating array of activities that compete with the purpose of that day, to honor those who fought and died fighting this country’s wars. Among these activities here in Madison are the weekend’s “World’s Largest Brat Fest,” the Vilas Zoo Park’s event “Feeding the Goats,” the “Madison Marathon,” and lots of “fun” activities at nearby Wisconsin Dells.
Then there is the Memorial Day ceremony today at the State Street entrance to the Capitol. It begins with a VFW band concert at 9:30 a.m., followed by the 10 a.m. program that features the traditional reading of General Logan’s General Order #11 that established Memorial Day, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, plus comments from Wisconsin former Governor, Jim Doyle. In addition, family members of the 274 Madison-area veterans known to have died within the last year will be recognized.
Out of respect for the many Americans who fought and died fighting this country’s wars, I am always drawn to attend Memorial Day events. These gatherings are especially meaningful for two reasons.
As a child I remember our Memorial Day family drives to a little cemetery located a mile north of the crossroads known as North Cape, located on Highway 45, about 20 miles west of Racine, where we lived. We made these trips to decorate the graves of my mother’s Norwegian father, George Spillum, who as a young man settled there in the late 1850s and later her mother, Anna Setterlun, who arrived as a nine year-old child from Sweden in 1869. These annual excursions excited us children because car trips in the late 1930s were a real luxury. While at the cemetery and before a brief outdoor service began, we placed flowers on the graves of our grandparents as well as our great grandparents who died many years earlier.
Though Decoration Day, as it was then known, sought to commemorate the Civil War dead, it had become a national holiday to honor the dead, whether or not they had served in the military. If any Civil War dead lay buried in the North Cape cemetery, I don’t recall. Fortunately, our grandfather did not enlist in the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, known as the Scandinavian (mostly Norwegian) Regiment, which suffered severe casualties. Among them was its Norwegian commander, Colonel Heg, whose statue stands at the southeastern corner of the Capitol Square in Madison.
The other reason is to honor the many members of our families who served in the nation’s wars—World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. My Dad, William Hansen, served in the Navy during World War I, and two uncles, Miles Hulett and Arthur Spillum fought with the 32nd Division in France; Sally’s father, James Porch, led an infantry company through the fierce fighting in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in 1918; three of her uncles served in the Army, one of them a doctor, Donald McPhail, who was gassed in France and died of its effects several years after the war’s end, by then married and the father of two small children.
Skipping to World War II, an older brother of ours, Jim, who served with the 34th Division, was killed in Italy in October 1943. Several Hansen cousins served overseas, one of them, also named Lee Hansen, in far-off China, and his brother Roger, in the U.S. On Sally’s side, her brother, Dick Porch, flew bombing missions over the Polesti oil fields; a cousin, Don McPhail, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and suffered what would now be called post-traumatic stress syndrome; another cousin, Charles Chadwick, was killed when his B-17 was shot down over Germany; and still another cousin, a young woman, Carolyn McPhail, served in the Women’s Army Corps. The man Carolyn later married, Eddie Wiertelak, had been scheduled to participate in the invasion of Japan in Fall 1945. The man Sally’s sister later married served in the Army Airforce. Several other cousins and boyfriends or husbands of less close relatives also served. Between WWII and the Korean War, a cousin, Robert Fridlington, served in Korea.
On to the Korean War. My two younger brothers and I were drafted into the Army but, fortunately, were not sent to Korea. I trained at Camp McCoy, was transferred to Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago, and then volunteered to join the American Military Mission for Aid to Turkey where I served for a year and one-half as a military adviser. During my basic and advanced training at Camp McCoy, a number of enlisted men and officers from the National Guard unit in which I served were ordered to Korea where several of them were killed or wounded.
My youngest brother, Harlan, drafted in 1952, twice had orders for Korea but each time they were rescinded, the first time to attend an advanced artillery training school and the second time to stay on as an instructor. However, some of his colleagues in basic training were sent to Korea, and it was reported back to him that several were killed by “friendly fire.” It seems that the many hills in Korea all looked the same. Pilots had to drop their bombs somewhere and in a number of cases they were dropped on our own troops. How sad. My brother, Forest, who was drafted in 1954 after the Korean Conflict ended, spent his time serving at SHAPE Headquarters in Paris; in addition to his regular duties, he traveled all over Europe as a member of the SHAPE basketball team. Several cousins also served; one of them, newly married, Donald Ebert, was killed fighting in Korea. In the late 1950s, still another cousin, Mike Spillum, served on a Navy submarine in the Pacific Ocean.
When I think of this country’s wars, these people are always in my mind. They deserve to be honored, both the living and the dead, and taking part in Memorial Day services is my one small way of doing so.
I usually attend the Memorial Day events at the State Capitol building here in Madison, something I will do again this year. Last year, I decided to drive the 80 miles to North Cape, located about 20 miles west of Racine. I drove to the old North Cape cemetery where a 7:45 a.m. Memorial Day service was scheduled. Arriving early, I took time to visit the graves of our ancestors. The worn gravestones of our great grandparents, the last of whom died a century ago, had been replaced a few years ago. The gravestones of our grandparents are so weathered that the inscriptions are difficult to make out; soon those gravestones will have to be replaced. Then I wandered about the cemetery, noting the names of families my mother and grandmother frequently mentioned when they talked about the “old days” in North Cape.
The Memorial Day ceremony was not an elaborate one. The American Legion Honor Guard from nearby Waterford assembled along the front edge of the cemetery. They faced the assembled crowd of about 35 local people, ranging from small children to one ancient man who must surely have been a WWII veteran.
The ceremony began with the calling of the roll, the names of the probably 15 local veterans who died in the past year. As each name was called out, the response was “Not Present.” The leader of the group then read from General John Logan’s 1868 Proclamation establishing Decoration Day to honor the Civil War dead. The Lutheran minister, from the Norwegian Lutheran Church (established in 1850) across the road, quoted from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and followed with a reading from the Bible. The color guard then presented arms and fired the customary salute. This was followed by the sound of “Taps” coming from two buglers, one with the honor guard and the other echoing the sound from a distant corner of the cemetery.
The ceremony proved to be a moving one. As always, it left me more than misty-eyed. What a sad but still glorious day, to honor the many who died far too soon.