Memorial Day is a time to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice
“Memorial Day started off as a somber day of remembrance; a day when Americans went to cemeteries and placed flags or flowers on the graves of our war dead. It was a day to remember ancestors, family members, and loved ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
“But now, too many people “celebrate” the day without more than a casual thought to the purpose and meaning of the day. How do we honor the 1.8 million that gave their lives for America since 1775? How do we thank them for their sacrifice? We believe Memorial Day is one day to remember.” (From usmemorialday.org.)
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day and held on May 30, dates back to 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. After World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May in order to ensure a three-day weekend holiday.
I was lucky
I was lucky, like all of my relatives who served in the armed forces in various wars survived and came home to live rather long lives. I do remember my mother often talking of five of her brothers who served in World War I (one who suffered lung injury from a poison gas attack). I also had several cousins who served in the armed forces during World War II and I spent a year in Korea as that war was winding down and my brother spent time in the Navy.
True, I’d never thought much about people dying for their country: really only when my uncle Marvin “Shorty” Levenick visited us and would on occasion come forth with a deep cough. My mother would always explain that her brother was caught in a gas attack during WWI that affected his lungs.
Never heard of him
Many years later when I rode my bicycle to the cross roads community of Utica to watch a Sunday Home Talent league baseball game, I was again reminded of those who died during the Wars. While parking my bike inside a small enclosure circling the flag pole, I noticed a ground level stone monument honoring Truman Olson, a local farm boy who had lost his life at Anzio, Italy in World War II and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I had never heard of Olson so did a good bit of research to find out more about this farm boy, soldier and hero. By that time his parents were dead and few local people even remembered him as a farm boy.
The farm boy
Olson was born in October of 1917, the son of Axel and Marie Olson, in the township of Christiana near Cambridge in Dane County. He had attended grade school at Utica and graduated from Deerfield High School. Like most patriotic young men of the time, Olson enlisted in the Army in June 1942. After infantry training he was sent to Europe in 1943 and by January 30 of the next year was serving with Company B, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division, in action at Cisterna di Littoria, Italy.
On the night of January 30, 1944, after a 16-hour assault on entrenched enemy positions, over the course of which one-third of his Company became casualties, Sgt. Olson and his crew, with the one available machine gun, remained to bear the brunt of the expected German counterattack.
With his gun crew decimated by enemy fire, Olson manned his gun alone, meeting the full force of an all-out enemy assault launched at daybreak by nearly 200 Germain soldiers.
After 30 minutes of fighting, Olson was mortally wounded, yet he refused evacuation. For an hour and a half after receiving his second and fatal wound, he continued to fire his machine gun, killing at least 20 of the enemy, wounding many more, and forcing the assaulting German elements to withdraw.
For these actions, Olson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force, which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States.
In addition to the monument located at the Utica Community Park, a second monument stands at the West Koshkonong Lutheran Church Cemetery where he is buried.
Do you have cousins, uncles or other relations who died during one of the not so long ago wars? Is he forgotten by your family? Ask your older relations, they may know. You could compile a history of your family member's efforts for future generations and tell your family about him.
And, leave flowers at his grave this Memorial Day, May 29th. Do it. It's called remembering.
Reach John Oncken at email@example.com