Though the Memorial Day holiday is to remember those who died serving their country, it is spent by many as a day off work, festivals, parades or other fun activities. Some businesses, rather than close, use the weekend for special sales of merchandise or services.
It’s somber for those who’ve lost loved ones in the military.
The Memorial Day weekend in 1948 was an especially sad time for Hall County relatives of a newly minted U.S. Marine who was among casualties in the tragic sinking of a launch off Norfolk, Va.
Homer Lee (Smokey) Norris’ body wasn’t found for days after the tragedy. Had it not been for an identification bracelet given to him by his longtime sweetheart, his body might not have been positively identified. His dog tags were missing.
Norris and his friend from kindergarten had dated while they attended Lyman Hall School and even after he enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He was known mostly by his “Smokey Joe” nickname, apparently from a professional baseball player at the time. He had joined the Marines just a year before the boat accident.
The Marines and sailors from the U.S. Kearsarge, an aircraft carrier anchored off Norfolk, had been ashore marching in a parade and were returning to the ship in a launch. A storm whipped up seas, and the boat capsized, spilling all those aboard. Nine Marines and 13 sailors drowned.
The Kearsarge was anchored two miles off shore, and the 50-foot open launch turned over just 200 yards from the mother ship. Some were able to be rescued, and at least one swam the two miles to shore.
Norris was among those missing for days. When his body was found, all his limbs were missing except for the arm that held the ID bracelet.
The Kearsarge was among a 12-ship armada headed for the Mediterranean Sea. The launch accident delayed its departure by 10 hours.
Some time later, a Naval Court of Inquiry found four high-ranking officers guilty of negligence in the accident, and Norris’s family was awarded $10,000 in compensation for their loss.
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Individual states had celebrated some form of Memorial Day before Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which combined four holidays into long weekends. May 30 was the designated day, however, it was 1971 before another congressional act made it more official, and more states signed on for the last Monday in May.
Confederate Memorial Day is still observed in the South, usually the fourth Monday in April. In Georgia, the traditional day has been April 26 because that was when the Civil War was pretty much done in the state.
Many recall in their childhood suiting up in sparkling white sundresses or starched short pants and shirt and marching to Southern cemeteries to decorate the graves of Confederate veterans. This usually meant placing a Confederate flag on each veteran’s grave.
Confederate Memorial Day observances continue today, including at Redwine Methodist Church in south Hall County and the Longstreet Society in Gainesville.
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It was at such a service in Gainesville in 1898 that the ball got rolling for erecting a Confederate monument on Gainesville’s downtown square. It would be another 11 years before that would happen as some preferred a statue of Lyman Hall, the county’s namesake who was one of three Georgians signing the Declaration of Independence.
At that 1898 observance at Brenau College’s auditorium, students sang “Maryland, My Maryland,” and Judge J.B. Estes spoke, plugging the idea of the Confederate monument as proposed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It would be 1909 before such a statue would be unveiled on Gainesville’s downtown square.
After the program, the ceremony continued at local cemeteries, where Confederate veterans’ graves were decorated.
Why the song “Maryland, My Maryland?” Because it was a battle hymn for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and contained disparaging references to President Abraham Lincoln and Northerners in general.
It is Maryland’s state song today and the theme for the Preakness Stakes horse race in Baltimore, Md., but obviously minus the politically incorrect lyrics.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.