As a southerner, we didn’t celebrate Memorial Day the way that folks in the north did, but over time, the concept which began as “Decoration Day” has grown on us. It’s not that we didn’t remember our fallen, because I remember that my uncle’s army photo was on a desk in my grandmother’s living room, and a certificate from the government, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, honoring his death, was framed and on the wall. As a child, I remember playing in the cemetery, while my grandmother tended the grave. Now, my grandparents are buried at the same site, in a small churchyard near Buford, Georgia, where they lived at the time.
My uncle was just 20 when he was killed in action, in Dortmund, on April 12, 1945, just a few days short of the end of military action in Europe. He was in the 9th Army, 75th Infantry, 290th Regiment, Company K. Because my grandparents had a detailed grave marker installed when they buried him, I was able to find some information about his unit’s activities during the big war. There is one site, in particular, that gives quite a bit of information about this group of soldiers, which the site owner calls “Bulgebusters.” Rather than repeat all that, I’ll simply say that he was among a group of soldiers tasked with clearing out remaining pockets of remaining German forces in the industrial area of northern Germany. His platoon encountered heavy enemy fire from machine guns and mortars, so the C.O. ordered them to retreat and A.L. was killed by machine gun fire. According to the account of a survivor, there were five other soldiers in his group, another soldier died, two were wounded, and two returned safely. The military does not supply such details, of course, but my grandparents took out ads in military publications asking for information, and there were a few letters from other soldiers who were part of the same regiment, and they were quite specific as to where, when, and how my uncle died.
As Memorial Day is an annual event, there are usually some canned “news stories” about how we should all remember the fallen heroes who have kept America free, and those are entirely appropriate. But, many families do not have a name, a face, or a grave to remember. I never met A.L. Dodd, but his face is quite familiar, because that original black and white photo is in my living room, still in its antique frame. He’s smiling in the picture, which seems odd, because current military pictures usually depict the subject in a “tough” stance. In his letters home, A.L. spoke of the scenery, saying that spring was coming, and he was sure the lands they were traveling through would be beautiful. These citizen soldiers were effective, for they defeated one of the most evil regimes in all of recorded history, but they were real people, too.