Memorial Day, as the name suggests, is about memory. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is about not forgetting.
Not forgetting loved ones or friends who died while defending the nation. Not forgetting what the stone markers in the military cemeteries at Santa Nella and Arlington and Normandy and all the others represent.
Over the years, I’ve written about people whose relatives – sons, daughters, husbands, wives, sisters and brothers – now rest in such places.• Johnnie Santini of Escalon. She lost an uncle in World War I and her brother in World War II. Yet she was blessed to have letters written by people who knew them and were with them when they died. I interviewed Johnnie in 2006. She died in 2013.
• Lois Hartley Hunter of Hughson. Her brother Howard had been shot down over France eight days after D-Day. She still has the telegrams, the first of which reported him missing in action, followed by another that confirmed his death.
• Mark Perra, an East Bay resident who never got to meet Uncle Walter, also shot down over France after D-Day. Walter Perra of Ceres was hailed posthumously by the people of the French village because he made sure his shot-up plane would miss the town before he bailed out. He waited too late to eject, and died when he hit the ground. Mark Perra researched his uncle’s life and has been to the town where he died. Perra worked with Tom Hillier to create an exhibit honoring Walter Perra that is in Hillier’s air museum at the Modesto Airport.
• Marjorie Miller of Modesto, whose brother-in-law J.B. Delane Miller is listed as the only Modestan killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Miller has the family documents. J.B., it turns out, never really lived here. His parents had moved to Modesto and he visited briefly before enlisting in the Navy in 1939. Their address became his address, and that is how he became the city’s only Pearl Harbor loss on Dec. 7, 1941.
• In 2010, I wrote about Stockton resident Bill Bahr, who served toward the end of World War II. He mustered out of the service briefly before re-enlisting and becoming a military escort at 22, taking the remains of soldiers back to their families for burial. We commemorate Memorial Day once a year. He experienced it about 120 times, returning the fallen to grieving mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Decades later, the emotions he kept in finally surfaced and he came to the Modesto Vet Center for post-traumatic stress disorder counseling.
• The Cabral family of Ceres knew Richard Cabral died in Korea in 1951, but little more. His brothers promised their mother on her deathbed they wouldn’t quit looking for answers.
“Before she died, I promised I’d do everything within my power to bring my brother back to American soil,” Roy Cabral told me in 2006. They’d just received a call from an Army official who told them Richard’s remains were among those handed over to the United States by North Koreans in 1993, had finally been identified, and were headed home for burial on U.S. soil. The official later visited them in Ceres.
“This is a celebration, in a sense,” he told Roy Cabral, brother Ron and younger sister Joanne. “It still doesn’t take away from the fact there was grieving back then (in 1951), and there will be grieving at the cemetery. (Richard is) going to get the same honor as if he were a soldier who died in Iraq today. We’re just running 50-something years late in bringing him home.”
She will be the keynote speaker Monday in the Memorial Day ceremony at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.• The 2006 death of Lance Cpl. Juana Navarro in Iraq forever changed the way her family would spend Memorial Day. A day once spent barbecuing and simply hanging out with family now centers on a visit to Juana’s grave at Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson.
“It’s more of a day of respect now, like Easter or her birthday,” her sister Beatriz Lopez told me a year after they laid her sister to rest. “We go out there and let her know we’re still with her.”
It’s been that way for virtually all of the families of the nearly three dozen Valley and foothill residents who have died serving the country since 2003.
They see Memorial Day as a time to reflect, to miss, to shed a tear and to remember the one they cherished and lost. And they hope others respect the fallen by not forgetting.