Memorial Day

Given the purpose of Memorial Day — to remember those who have died in service to the nation — it seems fitting that this year’s Meadville Memorial Day Observance is devoted to a war that remains largely forgotten today, despite its long-lasting effects.

“Remember the Maine: Commemorating the Spanish-American War” is the theme of this year’s event. Each year, the committee that organizes the event chooses a particular era as the focus, and this year the spotlight falls on the four-month conflict fought in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898.

For featured speaker Rich Krankota, the Crawford County veterans services officer, the holiday is less about the war and more about the veterans who fought in it and the nation’s other conflicts.

“It’s for the veterans that have gone before us,” he said this week as he was looking over the speech he had prepared for the occasion. “That’s why we’re here — because of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Too often, Krankota said, Memorial Day’s status as the unofficial start to summer obscures its true purpose of honoring those who have died in military service. Hopefully, he added, Monday’s event will change some minds.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to do the things we do,” Krankota said. “We wouldn’t be enjoying the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that our nation was founded on — we might have a whole different lifestyle.”

If not for the Spanish-American War, people in several island nations would likely be leading very different lifestyles today as well. The brief hostilities left the U.S. with possession of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines and temporary control of Cuba.

The war also made a hero of Theodore Roosevelt and effectively ended Spain’s time as an imperial power. As the U.S. negotiated with a newly independent but weak Cuba in the aftermath of the war, another result a few years later was the lease of Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. maintains a Navy base to this day for an annual fee of $4,085.

Largely a footnote in high school history classes during the mid-semester race from the Civil War to World War I, the Spanish-American War may not be prominent in the national consciousness, but the idea of memory was central to the conflict’s beginning.

“Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain” emerged as the battle cry after the yellow journalists of the time pinned the blame for the sinking of the battleship Maine on Spain. A Navy investigation 75 years later determined that in all likelihood the explosion that sank the Maine in Havana harbor was caused by an accidental fire rather than a Spanish mine. Two months after the explosion, Congress declared war on Spain.

According to the sesquicentennial edition of the Meadville Tribune-Republican, “Meadville was thrown into a condition of wild excitement by the news of the declaration of war. Cannons were fired, bells were rung and the streets were thronged by a people who were deeply stirred by the news.”

Company B of the Pennsylvania National Guard sent 64 men from Meadville to answer the call for volunteers, and more than 35 additional recruits soon joined the effort. The company was officially designated as Company B of the 154th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

According to the Tribune-Republican, another group of about 70 volunteers from the Meadville area departed soon after Company B, eventually becoming Company C of the 231st Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

The men of Company B made it as far south as Athens, Georgia, but by that time the war was over. Early the next year, according to the Tribune-Republican, “the company was mustered out of service and left for home where they were given a tremendous welcome by the hometown people.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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