As Memorial Day approaches, it is important to take time to appreciate the veterans who have served in our military and not just think of it as a three day weekend or a vacation. Americans celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday of May to remember those who have passed away while serving in the United States military. The holiday was originally called Decoration Day in 1871 to honor the people who died in the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic— a section of the Union army— designated this day for the nation to decorate the graves of people who had passed away with flowers.
Richard Nixon established Memorial Day in 1971 as an official holiday to honor American veterans. Many people celebrate Memorial Day by visiting the graves of relatives who have died and by putting flowers or other memorable items near the veteran’s grave. Others celebrate with their communities and gather to commemorate the service and sacrifice of men and women who have served in our military.
Menlo Park is the home of many war veterans, including one woman with an intriguing story from World War II (WWII). Jean Harman was part of an organization called Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Ever since she was a little girl, Harman wanted to be a pilot.
Harman explained, “I was very interested in aviation. In those days, women did not fly as a profession but flew for fun; so ever since I was little, I wanted to fly.” After she discovered her passion for flying, Harman went to college to explore the possibility of flying in the future. Harman recalled, “When I got to college, I took a course in the grounds school but they wouldn’t let people fly in California when we got into WWII. I got my AA [Associates degree] and went to Nevada, which was the closest place to be able to fly, and got my private pilot license, which was around the time the WASP organization was just getting started… There were 25,000 women who applied and about 1,078 that made it through, so we were a very elite group.”
According to Harman, men were not satisfied with women doing jobs that, until then, only men had done. “The men did not like it at all, the idea was that women did not belong in a man’s job. The pilots were heroes, and big shots and women did not belong there, so it was very difficult.” Despite this resistance from men, Harman said she would do it again in a heart beat.
“We would pay to do it again, we would never have had [in civilian life] an opportunity to fly bigger planes, we flew everything that the military had.” This included the fighter plane and the big bombers. “But we would have never had that opportunity in civilian life.”
Harman is especially proud of graduating from pilot training. “Just graduating from the training, each class only graduated about 50%, so it was quite an accomplishment to get through; I was very proud of it.”
Harman has celebrated every Memorial Day since it became a federal holiday in 1971. To Harman, Memorial Day holds significance and brings back many memories. She explained, “Memorial Day is definitely a day when you think of people who are no longer with us. During WWII, but especially during my training, I lost a lot of close friends…you definitely think about those people.”
Even though Memorial Day has a deeper meaning to Harman, she likes to keep her traditions simple by putting a flag up. She believes that even if one does not have military experience, he or she should still think about those who have served. “It wouldn’t hurt [non-military Americans] to give a thought to the people who have fought to preserve the values and the life that we have. People do not know that we almost lost the war to Germany in WWII, and believe me, life would be a lot different if those people were around the U.S. So it would not hurt to give a thought to the lives that were protecting us during the war.”
According to Harman, high school students should at least take a little time to appreciate and remember those who lost their lives in WWII. “I think a moment to remember those who have passed is the best we can expect out of you guys. It’s hard to conceive how terrible war really is… if you are shooting at a German, you’re still shooting at someone’s son, and the lives of many are affected unnecessarily.” Harman does not do anything fancy to celebrate the special day but remembers the people who sacrificed their lives for our country. Giving a thought to those people and putting up a flag is the best that I do.”
America became a strong nation through the sacrifice of the men and woman in our military. Harman has seen our country in military conflicts from WWII to Afghanistan. Her story is captivating but not unique because of the lives that were in a similar position as her. Millions of Americans have served in our military through times of war and times of peace. Memorial Day is a time to appreciate their service and their sacrifice which have earned us the freedoms that we treasure today.