Memorial Day, often confused with Veterans Day, was first observed on May 30, 1868, after the American Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, it was established by General John Logan as a way to honor both Union and Confederate soldiers, with flowers laid on their graves in Arlington National Cemetery. The South did not observe this holiday until after World War I, when it was expanded to honor all servicemen and women. In 1971, Uniform Monday Holiday took effect, which turned Memorial Day into a three-day holiday weekend. Today, it seems that the real meaning of the holiday has all but been lost, what with the barbecues, parties, and other social events going on after a (usually short) parade. That is, if there even is a parade; some towns have foregone this tradition altogether.
On Shinnecock, however, there is a Memorial Day ceremony, held at the Flag Pole, which flies the American flag as well as the golden flag of the Shinnecock people. The difference between the Shinnecock ceremony and that of other ceremonies on Long Island is that the men and women gathered there are Shinnecock, in-laws of Shinnecock, or friends and relatives of tribal members. As far as I know, it is the only uniquely Native American ceremony on Long Island.
The ceremony proceeds the same as anywhere else in the country–prayers are offered, a speech or poem is delivered, names are read, flags are given out to relatives of the honored to put on their graves, a wreath is placed in front of the boulder, all military personnel snap a salute, and everyone adjourns to the cemetery to place the flags on the soldiers’, sailors’ and airmen’s graves. I’ve spoken to some of the veterans of Shinnecock and they’ve told me that as far as they know, no Shinnecock died in any of the recent wars. There’s a reason for that, which will be covered in another article for another time, but suffice it to say that due to segregation in the armed forces, not many minorities got to see much combat in WWI or WWII, but those who did proved themselves more than capable. That is a mixed blessing, to be sure.
In researching this article, I spoke to two WWII veterans to get some background for a later story on all the Shinnecock servicemen and women, and found out some interesting things.
James H. Phillips, Jr. (“Dad” to me) was drafted into the army at the age of 18 and, after completing boot camp, was asked if he wanted to serve with the white or colored troops. He was given this choice, because he was registered as an “Indian.” Having been raised on a reservation, Dad knew first-hand about racism, and decided that his best bet would be heading out with the “colored” troops. I also spoke to Harry K. Williams, a former Shinnecock Tribal Trustee, who shared a similar story (look for something in the future about these and other Shinnecock veterans). It should also be remembered that the Navajo Code Talkers and Tuskegee Airmen were both segregated units. Dad was in the Quartermaster unit, which supplied the forward bases and POW camps. They were only given three bullets for their rifles, and as they went through the captured areas, they learned that the white soldiers had told the local population that the colored soldiers had tails. Uncle Harry was in the 366 Supply Division and his story too, is nothing if not fascinating.
These men hold no hatred or anger in their hearts and told me that was “just how it was.” It may be al strange and unbelievable now, but it was life back then. Of course, it’s important to put everything in a historical perspective; Jim Crow still ruled the South, as well as the armed forces, and the Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo Code Talkers hadn’t been recognized for their contributions to the war yet. That would come almost 50 years later.
Although I didn’t find any lists of casualties in researching this piece, and Dad and Uncle Harry couldn’t recall any, I did find some interesting statistics that never appear in articles or broadcast on television Memorial Day (or Veterans Day).
The list could go on for more than space allows, but here are a few: Native Americans have served this country since the Revolutionary War (actually on both sides of that one, as in the War of 1812 and the Civil War). More than 10,000 Native Americans served during WWI, 44,000 during WWII, with an additional 40,000 employed on the home-front in defense-related jobs. A significant number of the WWII veterans went on to serve in the Korean War, 43,000 Native Americans served during the Vietnam War, 3,000 in the Gulf War and, according to the Department of Defense, there are 22,248 Native American men and women currently serving in the military and Native Americans have the highest population per capita of any ethnic group serving in the military.
Native Americans received 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, 34 Distinguished Flying crosses, 2 Medals of Honor, and the 158th regiment, made up of mostly Native Americans, was one of the most decorated units of WWII.
Although the Navajo Code Talkers are the most notable, they were not the first Native Americans to use their language to help their fellow soldiers. That distinction goes to eight Choctaws operating in France during WWI in the Mousse-Argonne campaign. And this is before Native Americans were granted citizenship (that happened in 1940).
I also found that although the Tuskegee Airmen are the most famous of the black service units, there were other groups that had major roles in some of the biggest combat operations. The 761st “Black Panthers” tank unit was attached to General George Patton’s XII Corps 26th Infantry Division and was the tip of the spear in many of the General’s campaigns. A veteran of this unit was none other than Jackie Robinson. Who knew? It’s just another omission of many regarding the deeds and contributions that Native American and other minority men and women have performed in service to their country.
So take a few minutes and think about them, the fallen and forgotten, before you bite into that burger or sip that drink this Memorial Day.
James Keith Phillips’ story “Magic Shirts” won Dan’s Papers 2012 Literary Prize for Nonfiction. Phillips holds a B.A. in Theater Arts and M.S.W. from S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Long Island University. He has worked as a dancer, dance teacher, cook, painter, landscaper, psychotherapist/social worker, security assistant, deli clerk and anything else that paid. He has been riding the same motorcycle for 35 years.
You can now view all of the entries made to Dan’s Papers 2012 Literary Prize for Nonfiction and find details about our 2013 competition at Danshamptons.com/literaryprize.