Memorial Day Reads

Memorial Day was first officially observed nationally on May 30th, 1868. Memorial Day is thought to have descended from the practice called Decoration Day.  This was a day in the South when rural communities cleaned and decorated their cemeteries. It wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day was designated by Congress as a federal holiday.

Memorial Day is a most solemn holiday where we honor those who have fallen while serving in our armed forces.  It can be intimidating, and it is ultimately impossible to appreciate the experiences of those who gave everything.  We can attempt though, through literature, to walk a few steps in their boots.  This is a list of books that may give you a window into the world of those who didn’t come back.

Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

This fictionalized telling of the Battle of Gettysburg still resonates over 40 years after it won the Pulitzer Prize.  Shaara takes you inside the minds of those who made the hard decisions over the four days of this battle and describes the horrible price paid by those who followed their orders.  

Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I by John S. D. Eisenhower

The experience of two million American doughboys who helped end World War I is a subject that doesn’t receive as much attention as the generation that fought to free Europe from Nazi Germany.  Eisenhower, the son of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, tells the story of the generals and the foot soldiers who fought and died “over there.”

With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B.Sledge

War can be over glamorized when we talk about the brotherhood of men at arms.  Sledge’s memoir of his time in the Pacific with the United States Marine Corps is a remedy for that.  His descriptions of the brutality and degradation of warfare are unrelenting.  Sledge shows us war as it is; it is suffering, exhaustion and death.

Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission by Hamilton Sides

The casualties of war are not always on the battlefield.  Near the end of World War II, Allied soldiers held in Japanese prison camps were being executed after years of brutal treatment.  This is the story of a mission to save a group of American POWs before they could be murdered by their captors.

Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany by Stephen Ambrose

Ultimately, wars are not won by the generals but by the average citizens who put their lives on hold and risk not getting those lives back.  Ambrose tells their story here and it is full of first-person accounts that take you inside the army that freed Europe.

Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950 by Russ Martin

Called the Forgotten War, the Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953.  This is the story of the 12,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Division who broke through 60,000 Chinese soldiers in the winter of 1950.  Their struggles are brought to life by personal accounts gathered by the author.

What it is like to go to War by Karl Marlantes

Often we don’t know what we are asking of our troops when we send them into battle.  Marlantes’ memoir was written to show us the terrible price paid by soldiers when we ask them to go to war.


Photo of the Tomb of the Unknowns by Flickr user Tony Fischer.