Tom Kacich | Even just after WWI, Memorial Day wasn't a perfectly patriotic affair

Tom Kacich | Even just after WWI, Memorial Day wasn't a perfectly patriotic affair

Not unlike the United States of 2019, Americans in 1919 — just months removed from the end of a great world war — were of two minds about Memorial Day. Was it a day off from work or a day for solemn reflection?

It seemed to take time for the patriotic spirit to kick in, even in those days.

Champaign-Urbana newspapers carried numerous advertisements for clothiers urging men and women to "dress up for Decoration Day" with new fashions, not unlike today's Memorial Day sales on automobiles, mattresses and furniture.

The Champaign Daily Gazette (which seven months later would be out of business) decried the day of remembrance becoming another day of commercialism.

"Let us rest from grabbing the dollars just long enough this afternoon to take time to tell the office boy or the building janitor to get Old Glory out," the newspaper said in a front-page editorial.

But the federal government itself added to the confusion, scheduling a "Flying Circus" for Memorial Day at Chanute Field in Rantoul.

"Load up your automobile and join the throng. You will be assured of a big treat," said a full-page ad.

"Thrilling sham battles in the air, sensational maneuvers in the clouds, night bombing & dozens of other stirring stunts & features by skilled flyers of Uncle Sam's Service," the ad read.

The event was part of a recruitment effort by the U.S. Air Service, an early forerunner of the Air Force. The Kankakee & Urbana interurban line offered a special round-trip fare from Urbana to Chanute for 81 cents.

"A drive is being made for 15,000 recruits. One hundred and fifty of Chanute Field's quota of three hundred recruits have already been secured," the advertisement boasted. "Get into the air service now and travel the air lanes of the high ways."

The highlight was to be the bombing of a "fort," specially built for the Memorial Day event.

"Late at night airplanes illuminated with electricity will drop bombs on this fort and the attraction as planned will be a most novel and interesting one," said a story in the Champaign Daily News. "Today a plane was sent to Danville for a quantity of dynamite and the flyers reached the field in the evening after performing their mission."

Oddly, many of the local Memorial Day festivities seemed to be fixated on remembering the casualties of the Civil War rather than the dozens from Champaign County who lost their lives in the recently concluded great world war. Months after the war had ended, local newspapers still were reporting on deaths overseas, such as a former editor of the Urbana Courier whose death wasn't disclosed until March 28, 1919.

"The line made up of 'the boys of '61' grows shorter and shorter and soon none will remain to tell us of the sacrifices which they made in order that our glorious Union might live," editorialized the Daily News. "But our memory of them and the deeds which they performed shall never die."

Even the University of Illinois student newspaper, the Daily Illini, seemed to ignore the young men who had fought overseas a year or two earlier.

"Side by side the blue and the gray who had fought each other in '61, and the khaki clad heroes of both sides of the Mason and Dixon line who have perished in the battle for democracy, receive the homage of America," wrote the Daily Illini.

Only the Daily Gazette, in its page one editorial, seemed to grasp the oversight.

"What's the matter with us? Have we forgotten that there was such a thing as a world war?" the newspaper said. "Have we forgotten that hundreds of Champaign County boys went out to fight for us and did fight for us?"

The Gazette noted that when the local boys went off to war they were given a ribbon with the words, "Remember your county is back of you."

Champaign-Urbana should be ashamed, the newspaper scolded.

"Look, use a telescope if you care to; you will not see even an American flag as a beacon of welcome," said the editorial.

Coincidentally, members of Company M, local soldiers who had enlisted, were scheduled to return to town on June 1.

"The unvarnished truth is that there is not a hamlet in Illinois but which has put this city to shame in the way of welcome. So far there has been no such thing as a welcome here," said the Gazette.

A day later, though, the newspaper proclaimed that the community had redeemed itself.

"At noon Saturday you could have counted on the fingers of one hand the flags displayed in the business section (of Champaign)," it said. "Before sundown a sea of red, white and blue was dancing in the breeze, the buildings not floating flags being so rare that it was hard to find them."

Tom Kacich's column appears on Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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