What Memorial Day stands for

Cleveland Elementary School students at Purple Heart chapter’s Memorial Day ceremony in Union and West End Cemetery. Photo by Mary Louise Zakrewski

This is Memorial Day, and I’m thinking of my uncle Sam Venditta, who died of a World War II injury at age 31 five years after the war ended, and my cousin Nicky Venditti, a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot who went to Vietnam in 1969 and was dead in 11 days.

The war dead – that’s what this holiday is about.

It’s interesting that over many years, the day has evolved to encompass more than that. Many ceremonies aren’t just about the fallen; they also embrace veterans and current servicemen and women. Unless memory fails me, that’s been in sharper focus since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s as if we’re trying to make amends for the way we treated Vietnam vets in the 1960s and early ’70s.

One Memorial Day ceremony I attended in Allentown over the weekend, at Cedar Crest Bible Fellowship Church, warmly saluted veterans and service members, who had been especially invited. Hundreds of people applauded the vets as they stood while a band played the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps themes, and a reception was held for them afterward. It was a patriotic outpouring of gratitude.

I’m not saying that’s wrong. Vets and those now serving certainly deserve our thanks. But we do have a day set aside for them — Veterans Day — and it’s easier for us to show our appreciation for them. They are among us. The dead aren’t here. We can’t speak with them and shake their hands and thank them for making the ultimate sacrifice. They can’t acknowledge the attention. They live only in memory.

Still, veterans groups who hold Memorial Day ceremonies are more on the mark. I was at a service Friday put on by a half-dozen members of Lehigh Valley Chapter 190, Military Order of the Purple Heart. It took place in front of the graves of Civil War veterans in Union and West End Cemetery in Allentown, where dozens of kids from Cleveland Elementary School sat in the grass and held small American flags.

A bell was rung to mark the passing of Purple Heart members in the past year – Edwin W. Geyer, Mark Lacina, Phillip J. Leshay and Dennis S. Sell. A wreath was placed in honor of the dead, and three World War II vets fired a rifle salute.

It was a solemn tribute to our war dead, and it fit the day.


6 responses to “What Memorial Day stands for

  1. Mary Louise A. Zakrewski

    I like how the Chapter included the school children teaching them
    a little history !! (Outside of the classroom)


  2. Gregg Heilman

    I agree with Mary Louise, many school districts are reducing history classes in favor of the sciences. There are teachers now whose knowledge of our past wars and World Wars is nearly as little as their students.

    My father had enlisted in 1937 and served through out the war in the Pacific until 1945.

    It was the 15 TH Anniversary of the Attack on Hickam and Pearl Harbor. Our Third Grade Teacher Miss. Smith read an interview of a young airman who survived the Attack on 12/7/1941 on Hickam and Pearl Harbor for our History studies. Then she surprised us all by stating this man’s son is in our class today and it is you Gregg Heilman. My father had never mentioned anything of his time in the Pacific Theater or the War, and it was very bad in the Pacific.

    That night at supper I quietly asked him if it was true he was at the Attack on 12/7/1941? He was as surprised as I had been in my class and said Yes it was true.

    From then on he would share stories from time to time. I thank God we had teachers like Miss. Smith, she brought my father and I closer through our History lesson that day.


  3. Gregg Heilman

    I was looking at our local TV Stations website. There were Memorial Day Parades in every small town and village in Berks’ Co. and some in Northampton Co.

    Growing up in Allentown, and it has been my home since my birth 64 years ago we ALWAYS HAD PARADES FOR MEMORIAL DAY OR VETERANS DAY. Every father on our street was a Veteran of either WWI or WWII and every family attended all the parades held each year.

    Now you would have to leave Allentown to see a good old fashion inspiring Memorial Day or Veterans Day Parade.

    Last month the city recognized a Mexican Victory that had nothing to do with America.

    Allentown had been an ALL AMERICAN CITY now it is a nothing but the site of a large hole.

    Mr. Morton Sher our 12 TH Grade Homeroom Teacher was a proud American Veteran and proud of his Jewish Heritage.

    Believe me we did yell for Mr. Sher and his unit.

    Allentown can not and will never be the ALL AMERICAN CITY AGAIN.

    This next election will be the first since WWII to not have a Veteran running for President, you can see it in our cities and town how this has made all the difference and we are going to see it in our nation soon, or their nation. It is slowly becoming someone else’s nation, not the nation of Veterans and Americans.


  4. Mary Louise A. Zakrewski

    To Gregg Heilman, wow loved reading your comments !! So interesting and inspiring. . . . I know that Bangor, PA had a parade. . . . .


  5. Gregg Heilman

    Mary I have always had a great interest in American History most with the military issues.

    Growing up I knew I lost an Uncle Donald Wiesel on Omaha Beach on D-Day. My father always felt it was sad because Uncle Donald made it through North Africa and Italy and then died before he reached the beach on D-Day.

    The Morning Call had a detailed story of D-Day on the 50 TH Anniversary. The MC reporter spoke to a Unit Historian from Virgina who was there on Omaha Beach. In the interview he mentioned a name I heard my parents used when they talked of Uncle Donald. That night I called my mother and she read and saw this as well. I said “Do you want me to try to contact the man from Virginia and see if he knew Uncle Donald?” She said yes she was hoping I would suggest that. My Aunt Betty was his wife and remarried after the War and Donald was her husband.

    The reporter gave me Mr. Lipisky’s name and phone number and I called him. I said I suspect you knew my Aunt Betty’s husband who died on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He said “Gregg I have been trying to find Betty for the last 50 years!” I told him I have to break the news to Betty’s’ sisters and would get back to him. Everyone including Aunt Betty’s new husband agreed BETTY NEEDED TO TALK TO THIS WONDERFUL VETERAN.

    He had told me how Donald was nearly cut in half as soon as they dropped the landing craft ramp by German machine guns. Mr.Lipisky told me how he held Donald in his arms and how Donald asked him to get a photo out of his pocket. It was their wedding photo and he held it closely until his life left him. Donald had not died alone, he was held by a dear friend holding his beloved Betty’s’ photo.

    I then called my Aunt Betty and told her the story of finding Mr. Lipisky and gave her his phone number. My Aunt Betty was so blessed to speak to him and to know Donald did not die alone and he held her photo in his hands as he died on June 6, 1944.

    A Veteran friend of mine who I told this story went to the next D-Day event and placed roses on Donald’s grave for my Aunt and brought her one back from his resting place.

    After my mother died I found a copy of Betty and Donald’s wedding photo. I had it enlarged and I framed it for Aunt Betty. Her second husband has died and Betty is in her 90s. She was thrilled because she only had on photo of Donald, it was on only him, this was the two of them together on their wedding day before he left.


  6. Gregg Heilman

    After my mother died I found a copy of Betty and Donald’s wedding photo. I had it enlarged and I framed it for Aunt Betty. Her second husband has died and Betty is in her 90s. She was thrilled because she only had ONE photo of Donald, it was only him, this was the two of them together on their wedding day before he left.


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