In honor of Memorial Day, I have a new article up at We’re History that tells the story of American history through twelve very different cemeteries across the country. Check it out!
The history of the holiday we know as Memorial Day is a convoluted one: many towns and cities claim to have originated the practice, and it arose in some ways simultaneously in several places as a response to the apocalyptic death toll of the Civil War. At that time it was called Decoration Day, in reference to decorations left at the graves of war dead. Over the century following the Civil War, and especially in the aftermath of the nation’s other defining conflict, World War II, it morphed into a more general day of remembrance for those who died in battle.
I knew nothing about Thomas Lawless, Jr. until I went to Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett. I still don’t know much. His was one of many small markers I photographed that day, wandering around the grounds just before dusk.
I know he was born in May of 1918, just before the end of the Great War. I know he died in the closing days of the only war that has eclipsed it, the Second World War. I know his Division and regiment, so I know he died during the Battle of the Bulge: the 110th Infantry, 28th Division was at the center of the fighting in December of 1944.
With that information, I was able to find his army enlistment records through the National Archives. He enlisted in Boston on December 9, 1943, just over a year before his death. He enlisted for the remainder of the war, plus six months for disarmament, though he never got to see it. Before the war he drove for his work; the catch all army code on the form covers everything from chauffeur to truck driver to tractor handler. He never graduated from high school. According to the 1940 census, at 17 or so he had a child – a daughter named Carol – with Sabrieg Christianson of Medford. When he died in 1944, Carol would have been around 9.
I wasn’t able to find Carol anywhere beyond that census, but she’d be a little over 80 today. I hope she’s still out there, and still remembers her father. These living links – through family, through records, through graves – are what make memory possible, and that’s the best thing I can think of to honor Memorial Day tomorrow.