Hearing about the experiences of military service and sacrifice from someone who experienced it first-hand will mean more to children than getting it from any other source.
That was the message David Wells shared Tuesday evening during a Nebraska Humanities program sponsored by the Adams County Genealogical Society at the Hastings Public Library.
Wells, who lives in Omaha, is the historian for the Civil War Veterans Museum in Nebraska City.
“Tell your stories to your grandkids and your great grandkids, those of you from Korea and World War II,” he told his audience of around 20, mostly senior citizens. “You see, you have credibility, which no one else has. You can talk about what you went through, what you had to sacrifice. Don’t let Hollywood tell the story of Korea or Vietnam.
“It’ll mean more coming from you than it will from Oliver Stone or someone else in Hollywood, and it’ll give a more true picture of what it was like back then.”
Speaking the day after Memorial Day, Wells expressed concern about what the holiday has become.
“Do they really understand what this is supposed to be about?” he said. “It’s become a celebration hasn’t it? What did you hear on the radio, ‘celebrate Memorial Day’? Have we let it slip too far from its intended purposes? Has it become something we get through as fast as we can so we can go on with the other fun things planned for the day?”
For his presentation, Wells wore a blue Grand Army of the Republic replica uniform.
It was the GAR that established Memorial Day on May 30, 1868, three years after the end of the U.S. Civil War. The GAR was a collection of Union veterans.
“So many families — North and South — were grieving, yet just two years later it was noticed that no one seemed to care,”he said. “The graves of the heroes who had given their lives to save the union were virtually ignored. It was almost like the war and sacrifice had never happened.”
There were only about 180 Memorial Day services nationwide that first year. Wells said the first Nebraska service was in 1870.
Originally, the day was known as “Memorial Day, a Day to Decorate the Graves.” It soon was changed to Decoration Day, a name that stood for about 20 years.
Decoration Day and Memorial Day were used interchangeably for several decades.
The federal law took effect in 1971 to establish Memorial Day on the fourth Monday of May.
Wells owns a collection of sheet music of Memorial Day songs written in the years after the GAR established Memorial Day. From that sheet music he produced an album of those songs as sung by students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He also owns several 19th and early 20th century newspaper front pages depicting Memorial Day observances.
Those images were primarily of widows and orphans in the years immediately following the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1883, almost 20 years after the end of the war, that the iconic image of the old, decrepit began to appear in the observances.
Throughout his presentation, Wells showed photos of old Memorial Day observances. That included one from 1908 showing hundreds of children marching with veterans through downtown York.
“Should it be changed back to something closer to what it was intended to be?” Wells asked.
There are many answers to that question, he said.
Still, he said, the public as a whole needs to remember the sacrifice of the veterans.
“Somehow their contributions are different,” he said. “The hardships they endured, the horrors they saw, the pressures they felt, only a fellow veteran can really understand but we must try to do also. To do otherwise, would cause us to forget.”