Observing Memorial Day 2023, like millions of other Americans I recall the sacrifices of those who selflessly gave their lives in far off places like Guadalcanal or the Hurtgen Forest or Anzio beach. Some remain in neatly kept cemeteries in France or other countries. In many cases, those men did not understand fully “why” they were engaged in conflict, save that their country had called them to do so. And, thus, it was their duty to do so.

Has this not been the case with most of the conflicts in which the American nation has been engaged since the end of the War Between the States?

As we look back now, we can point to Korea and Pearl Harbor when we were attacked, and thus, with some justification, we can mention those conflicts as, at least from that perspective, justified. But how many other conflicts—wars—can we say the same thing about, and not just the more recent “American police actions” (in Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.) which remain extremely controversial in almost every respect?

What about the Spanish-American War, arguably a blatant case of American imperial power against Spain? And World War I? Increasingly, the evidence points to a monumental error, perhaps a calculated one, on our part to affect the outcome of a European war, with eventually disastrous consequences for everyone involved. Is it not justifiable to say that the victory of the Triple Entente (i.e., Great Britain, France, and Imperial Russia) and the resultant Draconian peace, hugely facilitated and made possible by wrongheaded American intervention, set the stage for the rise of world Communism and, ineluctably, the accession to power in Germany in fourteen short years of Adolf Hitler?

And more, what of the mound of evidence indicating that Franklin Roosevelt, eager to enter the war in Europe on Britain’s side, took actions that forced the Japanese into war, making the Pearl Harbor attack all the more likely. Were his actions, what historian Charles C. Tansill called “the back door to war,” so designed? Historians and authors still hotly debate those assertions.

Through it all, through all those wars and military conflicts, and more recently through Vietnam, and then the Balkans and the Middle East, American boys, fathers, sons, and brothers have done their duty, not usually asking difficult questions, but rather answering the call when issued.

Has this not been the case almost always?

In 1941 it was far easier to make the case that our young men must answer that call. After all, for whatever reason, we had been attacked, and we had no other option than to respond and respond forcefully, to mobilize and prepare for years of grueling and painful war.

In his letters to my mother he left behind [now in the NC State Archives], my father, Harry S. Cathey, writes from France and Germany in 1944 and 1945. Some of the words and designations are obviously in a code they had between them—he could not identify locations in the combat zone. And what comes through above all are two things: his sense of duty to his country and his abiding love for my mother—no real complaints about his conditions, although he does express the wish that he can taste her cooking again and, of course, the hope to see her soon.

A member of the 101st Cavalry, my father was assigned to a Light Tank (“Stuart” type, from available information) and was involved in reconnaissance operations. On March 15, 1945, near Kaiserslautern in the Rheinland-Pfalz, his tank was hit directly by a German projectile. Dad, then piloting the tank, was seriously wounded, and his best buddy Dale Lackey, the gunner, was killed.

What has always affected me deeply and impelled me to count my blessings is that shortly before that attack, my father and Dale had traded positions: my father had been for several days prior the gunner, and Dale the pilot. They often switched positions—and they had done so only hours before the fatal incident. That trade had saved my father’s life, almost miraculously, just as it had taken Dale’s.

After the war and after my father got out of Walter Reed Hospital with a permanent back disability, he and my mother went to Granite Falls, North Carolina, to visit Dale Lackey’s widow. And several years later, when I came along, I received in his honor and memory the middle name “Dale.” Throughout my life, always, I carry that name of a man who seventy-eight years ago perished in a place where just as easily my father could have been. Thus, Memorial Day is always significant for me, for I honor especially my father’s service and also the memory of his buddy.

Some seventy-five years later, I decided to search out any living members of the family of my father’s compatriot, and I discovered that Dale Lackey had had a son named Dale, born December 8, 1944, who never got to see and know his father. I looked him up and found him in Statesville, North Carolina, and I contacted him. With emotion I told him about my middle name in honor of his father, and how that change in tank positions saved the life of my dad. As we talked by telephone I think we were both deeply moved as we realized how war can radically alter destiny and lives, not just of its direct participants but also of their families.

After seventy-five years I made a new friend whose friendship is both very special and spiritual.

Thus, Memorial Day is very significant for me, for I honor especially my father and his buddy Dale Lackey whose name I also carry.

Those men are called “the greatest generation,” and the reasons that are given are that they “saved us from totalitarianism,” or “they made the world safe,” and the list goes on. Much of that we would now say was a kind of very questionable, self-justifying propaganda…but always with an embedded, fragile, often obscure kernel of truth.

They were not political strategists or encumbered with high positions in government where long-range policies were made. Perhaps if they had been, things might have been different.

I like to think, as I reflect on Memorial Day and its deeper meaning, that above all those men did their duty, experiencing the pain of separation, the privations of war, the many necessary sacrifices, and oftentimes death. In this they leave their memory and honor to us all, unselfishly.

And, so, we honor them, we remember them—at times our hearts still ache as we recall them in our presence, as we recall listening to their voices and stories, and as we admired and continue to admire their hard-earned and often weary wisdom.

That is, in so many ways, the real “why” of Memorial Day.

Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.

One Comment

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “That is, in so many ways, the real ‘why’ of Memorial Day.”
    If it were only possible to convey this message to today’s “media” and “academia,” who mostly celebrate Memorial Day as War Day.
    Personal note: My father served in the oft-forgotten China, Burma, India Theater (C.B.I.) He would have agreed with you wholeheartedly.

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