The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor the many young American men who served in the nation’s wars—World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and our most recent military adventures in the Middle East. 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 Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) family drives to a little cemetery on Highway 45, a mile north of the crossroads known as North Cape, about 20 miles west of Racine, Wisconsin, 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 rare 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.
Decoration Day, as it was then known, sought to commemorate the Civil War dead. 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. Later Decoration Day became Memorial Day, a national holiday to honor the dead, whether or not they had served in the military.
The other reason is to honor the many members of our families who served in the nation’s wars. My father, William R. 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, commanded an infantry company in the Fifth Division’s Sixty-first Infantry Battalion during the Meuse-Argonne campaign. Three of Sally’s uncles served in the army, one of them a doctor, Donald McPhail, who was gassed in France. He 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 Infantry Division, 125th Field Artillery Battalion was killed in action in Italy in October 1943. He was awarded a Silver Star for his valor in directing fire on an attacking formation of enemy tanks. 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, with the 15th Air Force, flew hazardous bombing missions over the Polesti oil fields in German-occupied Rumania; 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 with the 8th Air Force, was killed when his B-17 was shot down over Germany; and still another cousin, a young woman, Carolyn McPhail, enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps.
The man Carolyn later married, Eddie Wiertelak, had been scheduled to participate in the first wave of the planned fall 1945 invasion of Japan. The man, George Crenshaw, Sally’s sister, Nancy, later married served in the Army Air Force. Several other cousins and boyfriends or husbands of less close relatives also served. Nancy’s grandson fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later committed suicide.
Between WWII and the Korean War, a cousin, Robert Fridlington, spent more than a year in Korea. During the Korean War, my two brothers and I were drafted into the Army and served our time but not in Korea. I ended up training Turkish soldiers in Turkey; my youngest brother, Harlan, twice had orders for Korea but ended up as an artillery instructor at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, and my middle brother, Forest, served in SHAPE headquarters in France. Several other cousins also served in the Korean War, including newly-married Donald Ebert who was killed in action there.
My son-in-law, Harvey Dunham, served in the Coast Guard during the final phases of the Vietnam War and was stationed in southern Thailand and later on Marcus Island. His father, Jack Dunham, served as a Navy medic at a hospital on Manus Island, north of Australia, that cared for the severely wounded from fighting in the South Pacific in WWII; he was recalled to active duty in the Korean War. Two of his father’s brothers also served in WWII, one of whom fought on Iwo Jima and the other on Guadalcanal. Two of his mother’s brothers served in WWII, both of them ended up in VA Hospitals where they died. Finally, a cousin of Harvey’s was a veteran of combat in the Vietnam War.
Several years ago, I decided to do something different. I drove 80 miles to the North Cape, cemetery located a mile north of North Cape for a 7:45 a.m. Memorial Day Service. 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 the inscriptions are difficult to make out; soon those gravestones will also 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 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 was a moving one that always leaves me misty-eyed for the many who died much too soon.
About the Author
At age 92 I decided to showcase my recent and current writings on a variety of topics outside of my career interests as an economist. My wife Sally’s dementia, my experiences of war, and my interests in improving higher education all compel me to write.
For most of the last decade I maintained a low profile, necessitated by my wife Sally's suffering from a decade-long siege of vascular dementia. After she passed away several years ago I wrote about our experience, in the belief that this would be helpful to the many others who suffer from dementia and their family caregivers. I am currently seeking a publisher for my book manuscript: The Forgotten: Dementia and the Right to Die.
Over the past few years I began working on several other writing projects that are described more fully elsewhere in my blog. These include a nearly-completed book manuscript on my "expected proficiencies approach to the college major'' as a vehicle for reinvigorating liberal education. I continue to write on the shortcomings of UW-Madison's affirmative action policies and programs that over the years have been renamed "diversity and inclusion" policies and programs.
Within two weeks of my graduation from UW-Madison in June 1950, the Korean War broke out. I was drafted and expected to be sent to Korea to join our fighting forces there. But instead I was sent to Turkey for 18 months. How lucky I was. I am also writing a memoir of my Korean War military experience when I served as an U.S. Army adviser in our military aid program in Turkey.
Until I began branching out beyond economics, I failed to realize what a profound effect the Great Depression and World War II had on me as I grew up. I have already captured some of these recollections, with more of them to follow.
With that introduction, I turn you over to my blog entries as well as my other writing projects described more fully elsewhere in my blog. Best wishes ~ W. Lee Hansen
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Award-winning author W. Lee Hansen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Full bio.