A look back: Memorial Day observances are a vital part of Pittsburgh's history

Adolf Hitler was poised for victory over France as Pittsburgh prepared to mark Memorial Day in May 1940.

Banner headlines in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summarized the most recent disasters: “Allies Concede Flanders Loss” and “Armies Seek Escape at Dunkirk.”

While the United States had remained thus far out of the war that began with the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the newspaper on Memorial Day carried front-page stories on American preparedness efforts. “U.S. to Call Reserves In Air Service” was the headline on one dispatch, while another reported on the latest advice that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s military advisers were giving him: “President Told He Must Boost Fund for Army.”

Memorial Day was started just after the Civil War as a way to honor the memory of those who had died during military service. Stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and its predecessors over the past century and a half show how the national holiday has expanded in meaning. It now reflects a way to remember all who have died and to launch the unofficial start of summer.

Pittsburgh went its own way from the very beginning to mark the holiday, starting with the first formal commemoration in May 1868. Gen. John A. Logan was commander-in-chief of a national Civil War veterans group called the Grand Army of the Republic. He had issued a G.A.R. order designating May 30 as a day for ex-Union soldiers to pay “tribute ... to the memory of their departed comrades,” the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported that day.

Commanders of local G.A.R. posts decided instead to hold an ecumenical church service on the following day “instead of complying strictly with the order,” the newspaper reported.

The Rev. S.F. Scoval officiated at the 7 p.m. service on May 31 at First Presbyterian Church, which then faced Wood Street at what is now Sixth Avenue. “All honorably discharged soldiers and sailors are requested to assemble at the League Hall ... at half past six o’clock when a procession will be formed,” the story said. The hall was in the 100 block of Lacock Street on what is now the North Side. “This arrangement will not of course interfere with any one desiring to carry out the request in Gen. Logan’s order to strew the graves of departed soldiers with flowers today,” the newspaper advised.

Push for Liberty bonds

When southwestern Pennsylvania marked Memorial Day in 1917, the United States had recently entered what later became known as World War I. While the number of Civil War veterans had been reduced by time, G.A.R. members continued to play major roles in the local commemorative events.

“Services were held at Chartiers Cemetery by Capt. Thomas Espy Post 152 of Carnegie and Gen. James A. Garfield Post No. 215, West End,” The Pittsburgh Gazette-Times reported on May 31. The Civil War veterans were joined in their march by Boy Scouts and members of the newly formed Veterans of Foreign Wars. That organization was open to men who had seen military service in more recent U.S. conflicts, including fighting in Cuba, the Philippines and China.

Memorial Day services had been held at Sewickley Cemetery since 1880, the newspaper said. The 1917 commemoration was the 37th at the cemetery to be led by G.A.R. members. The veterans also were treated to a dinner at the Sewickley Public School.

About 20 miles to the northeast, residents of Verona gathered to see off a baker’s dozen of their neighbors who had joined what would become the American Expeditionary Forces. “Thirteen employees of the Verona Tool Works, who enlisted to defend Old Glory, were given a farewell reception and banquet ... in Pythias Hall,” the paper reported. “Each was given a comfort bag made and presented by the women of Verona Red Cross Auxiliary.”

“McKeesport’s Memorial Day Parade was the greatest in the history of the city,” the Gazette-Times reporter wrote. About 8,000 people marched and 15 bands played. But the outstanding feature “was the marching of the 18 members of the G.A.R., all of whom are over 75 years old.”

G.A.R. commander-in-chief Col. W. J. Patterson was among the many speakers that day who reflected on the challenges in the looming war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. He urged his listeners “to ‘do their bit’ for the Red, White and Blue by enlisting or subscribing to Liberty bonds.” Those bonds would help pay for the war.

Memories of the Great War were still fresh in 1926 when the region marked Memorial Day. “Comrades of ‘61, their sons of ‘98 and their grandsons of ‘18 will unite tomorrow to pay tribute to the valiant who have passed beyond,” the Gazette-Times reported on May 30, 1926. Bellevue and neighboring North Boroughs planned a joint commemoration at Bayne, now Bellevue, Cemetery. “The services will be preceded by a parade of military and other organizations from the Bellevue Borough Hall,” the story said. No marching for the Civil War vets this time. Cars would be provided for the G.A.R. members taking part in the Bellevue parade.

Veterans from G.A.R. posts and the VFW would be joined for the North Boroughs parade by members of the American Legion, a new service organization for those who fought in World War I.

Homestead, West Homestead, Munhall, Whitaker, Hays and what was then Mifflin Township joined together for a parade and services at Homestead Cemetery. Wounded soldiers, Civil War veterans and their wives would be able to ride rather than walk during the Memorial Day parade.

Veterans taking part in May 31 services at St. Peter’s Lutheran Cemetery in Pittsburgh’s Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood included William McNair. He was the last local survivor of the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898. The destruction of the U.S. Navy vessel in Havana Harbor was blamed on the Spanish, although the cause has never been definitively determined. The sinking of the ship and the loss of 261 American lives became the inciting incident for the start of the Spanish-American War.

Hoping for peace

Gloomy weather reduced the crowds and number of marchers who turned out for traditional parades and graveyard services on May 30, 1940.

“Prayers for continued peace in America and for an end to war’s horrors in Europe were heard throughout the Pittsburgh district yesterday as the community paid homage in the rain to its soldier dead,” the Post-Gazette said on May 31.

Allegheny County Judge Michael A. Musmanno played President Lincoln in a Memorial Day radio play he wrote that was broadcast on KDKA. His play “tells of Lincoln’s visit to the blind men’s ward in a soldier’s hospital in Washington.” The wounded men, unaware of the identity of their visitor, ask him about the speech the president had delivered at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg.

The Pittsburgh Press reported on May 29 that only six Civil War veterans were left in Allegheny County, leaving the men who fought in what was now being called “World War No. 1” to take charge of parades and other ceremonies.

VFW and American Legion posts combined their efforts to put on a program at United Cemetery in Ross that featured county Judge W. Heber Dithrich as the main speaker. Before his death in 1953, Dithrich went on to serve as a state Superior Court judge.

In an editorial that appeared on Memorial Day, the Post-Gazette reminded readers that many thousands of new graves had been dug in foreign soil for Americans who died in the first world war. It was still “the prayer of the nation that similar sacrifices may not be required again,” the editorial said. But the country had to be ready, the newspaper said. “In rearming we serve notice that we realize America may be compelled to fight in defense of liberty again and that if the challenge comes, we shall be prepared to meet it.”

By 1961, as memories of World War II and Korea had faded somewhat, the holiday had taken on its modern double-sided character. “For some it will be a day to remember loved ones who died in this nation’s wars,” Post-Gazette reporter Alvin Rosensweet wrote on May 30. “For others it will be the opening of the summer season.”

“Thousands gathered along parade routes and in cemeteries to watch a ritual that has been an American tradition since the Civil War,” the P-G’s Vince Johnson wrote in a May 31 story. “But others trudged to cemeteries to honor the dead in solitude, leaving their hearts at the graves.”

Vietnam casualties

Judge Musmanno, by this time a state Supreme Court Justice, was one of many speakers at the region’s 1967 Memorial Day commemoration. That spring tensions were heating up between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and he warned of the greater dangers in an atomic-era conflict. When the “Six Day War” broke out a week later, fighting was limited to conventional, but still deadly, weapons.

The continuing war in Vietnam was reflected in 1967’s commemoration as well. “Mount Lebanon’s first victim of the Vietnam war, Lt. Thomas A. Bird Jr., was honored yesterday as the township dedicated a park in his memory,” a May 31 Post-Gazette story said. Lt. Bird’s parents and all 11 of his brothers and sisters attended the outdoor ceremony and dedication of a plaque in the park. The 23-year-old helicopter pilot died in March 1966 when his aircraft was brought down by Viet Cong small-arms fire.

By 1985, U.S. participation in the war in Southeast Asia was long over, but veterans and their families had not forgotten its costs or the sacrifices of earlier conflicts. Memorial Day marchers and bands stepped off in Mt. Lebanon, Lawrenceville, Bethel Park and the South Hills, the Post-Gazette reported May 28.

Former Green Beret John Lotz, a Vietnam veteran, was among a small group who marched to Pittsburgh’s Point for what had become a Memorial Day tradition: laying a wreath on the rivers.

“World War I, World War II, Korea — these gentlemen represent the people who came back,” Mr. Lotz said. “And they are here to honor those who didn’t.”

“Signs of age showed in the 50 men,” the Post-Gazette’s Don Hammonds observed.

“Some walked with canes and one even had an oxygen tank strapped to his back,” he wrote.

“But no matter what they did, or how they did it, they could all be described in one word: proud.”



Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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