WASHINGTON — The United States paused Monday to honor its war dead on the annual Memorial Day.
With U.S. President Donald Trump in Japan on a state visit, Vice President Mike Pence laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington. Trump, before returning home, is marking the holiday with an address Tuesday to American troops at the Yokosuka U.S. Naval Base near Tokyo about the “global nature of the partnership between Japan and the U.S.”
At the cemetery, Pence told hundreds of military dignitaries and relatives of the fallen that the U.S. “can never fully repay” its debt to those who gave their lives for the country.
“We will never forget,” he said, “and we will never forget to honor” them. “Their duty was to serve, our duty is to honor them.”
Parades and somber remembrances are planned in U.S. cities large and small on Monday to recall the ultimate sacrifice that hundreds of thousands of Americans have borne for their country’s freedom through its 243-year existence.
It is estimated that 1.1 million Americans have died in conflict, but the largest single death toll — nearly a half million — came in the 19th century U.S. Civil War fought between northern and southern states over slavery, a practice ended after Union states in the northern U.S. prevailed. In the deadliest overseas conflict, more than 400,000 Americans were killed in World War II.
Various places across the U.S. have been cited in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, with perhaps the first commemoration of war dead in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. In early rural America, families often marked the day in late summer. For years, the memorial was known as Decoration Day and the fallen from all U.S. wars were remembered and their service honored.
Memorial Day for years was set on May 30, but it became a national U.S. holiday in 1971 and now is celebrated on the last Monday in May. For some, a national moment of remembrance is set at 3 p.m. local time on the holiday.
Families of the fallen often visit the grave sites of their loved ones or watch parades with bands and flag-waving marchers. But for other Americans, the day is unofficially the beginning of summer and part of a three-day weekend when families head to parks and the beach or enjoy picnics with friends and relatives.
In Washington on Sunday, thousands of motorcycles roared through the streets for what organizers say will be the last Rolling Thunder celebration in the nation’s capital.
The annual Memorial Day tradition is meant to draw attention to more than 83,000 U.S. military personnel still listed as Missing in Action from World War I through the recent fighting in Iraq. The list also includes 126 people believed missing from operations related to the Cold War.
The first Rolling Thunder was held in 1988. The cyclists usually meet up in a Pentagon parking lot and ride into downtown Washington across the various bridges spanning the Potomac River.
But Rolling Thunder Executive Director Artie Muller said this is the last year he will hold the ride in Washington.
Muller said he has grown frustrated with the Pentagon bureaucracy in coordinating the event. Mueller said sponsors, vendors, and others have not been given access to parking lots even though Rolling Thunder said it paid “exorbitant permit fees.”
For many people, the group’s decades-long presence with the loud roar of their motorcycle engines has become synonymous with Memorial Day activities in Washington.
Trump says Rolling Thunder is always welcome in the city.
“The Great Patriots of Rolling Thunder will be coming back to Washington, D.C. next year, and hopefully for many years to come. It is where they want to be and where they should be,” Trump tweeted as he thanked the “great men & women of the Pentagon for working it out.”
In an interview with VOA, Muller said Rolling Thunder is “willing to talk” with the president. But despite the president’s postings on Twitter, Muller said, “I think we really want to go nationwide” with local chapters holding their own observations on Memorial Day.
Muller said the annual trek to the nation’s capital is becoming too much for some Rolling Thunder members. “We’re all getting old and can’t ride that far,” he said. For members who come from the West Coast, Muller said, “It a haul. You’re talking 2 to 3,000 miles… That takes a lot out of you.”
Pentagon figures show 83,000 American military personnel remain unaccounted for. Most of them — about 73,000 — are from World War II. Upwards of 7,700 are from the Korean War, and more than 1,600 are from the Vietnam War.
Trump, before he left for Tokyo to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said he is considering pardons for several military servicemen accused or convicted of war crimes, an action that critics say would be an abuse of his pardon powers.
“We’re looking at a lot of different pardons for a lot of different people,” Trump said at the White House.
“Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard, long, you know. We teach them how to be great fighters and when they fight sometimes they get really treated very unfairly. So we’re going to take a look at it,” Trump said.
He acknowledged that two or three cases were “a little bit controversial.”
But as Memorial Day dawned across the U.S., Trump had yet to announce any pardons.