On a sunny Tuesday morning 80 years ago on the 30th of May, troops from Battery G and the fort’s regimental band mustered in front of the Fort Worden movie theater in preparation for the annual Memorial Day service.
The detail, comprising nearly 200 soldiers, stepped off precisely at 11:25 a.m. and marched west down the road (now named Eisenhower Avenue) toward the post cemetery. Tucked away in the southwest corner of the fort, encompassing a little over an acre, the hallowed ground initially served as the final resting place for veterans of the Civil War and Spanish American War.
According to the June 1, 1939 Leader, Captain Louis T. Vickers of the 14th Coast Artillery and Chaplain F. B. Bonner led the solemn ceremony with speeches and prayer, concluding with the national salute of 21 guns in remembrance of the fallen.
In the early days of the fort, the memorial services were for the garrison alone. Later, locals were invited onto the post to take part in the annual remembrance ceremony.
Officially, Memorial Day is only a 50-year-old federal holiday, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Traditionally, the day of remembrance began a hundred years earlier when Civil War General John Logan used his influence as the head of the newly established Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Civil War veterans’ organization, to honor those lost during the war. Logan issued an order to the membership that May 30, 1868, be the day “for strewing with flowers the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country…and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
The public response was overwhelming but many of the burial sites were rudimentary plots situated on the former battlefields scattered throughout the South. Following the Civil War, the government had the difficult task of reinterring the remains of over 300,000 soldiers from the shallow battlefield graves to newly created formal military cemeteries on Army posts throughout the country. Fort Worden’s was established in June of 1902, and when the fort was decommissioned in 1953, the cemetery remained under the purview of the Army.
Today, managed by Army and Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the cemetery is one of the few located outside a military installation, meaning a gate access request is not required to visit the grave sites. Currently, the cemetery holds the graves of 442 military personnel and civilians, as well as two unknown veterans. The cemetery remains open for inurnments only.
Since its designation as a Federal holiday, Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May, this year it’s May 27. Although the active soldiers are gone, the American Legion Marvin Shields Memorial Post #26 continues the annual tradition of paying homage to those veterans who have passed on. The Legion has organized a wreath-laying ceremony for the local cemeteries starting with Fort Worden at 10 a.m. The public is invited to join the procession and is welcome to meet at the Reveille Café in the Fort Worden Commons prior to the 10 a.m. observances.