May holidays celebrate current service members, honor sacrifice of nation’s fallen warriors

  • Published
  • By Max Maxfield
  • Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility

Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day are two of the three major military-centric holidays observed in the U.S. Both are celebrated in May and, along with Veterans Day, Nov. 11 of each year, give Americans a way to thank current service members, and to honor those who have paid the ultimate price in service to the nation.


President Harry S. Truman led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank the nation’s actively serving military members for their patriotic service. Aug. 31, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace separate Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Days.

In Presidential Proclamation 2873, which created Armed Forces Day, President Truman wrote, “Whereas the Armed Forces of the United States serve the Nation with courage and devotion both in war and in peace; and whereas the Armed Forces, as a unified team, are currently performing at home and across the seas, tasks vital to the security of the Nation and to the establishment of a durable peace; and whereas it is fitting and proper that we devote one day each year to paying tribute to the Armed Forces as the servant and protectors of our nation …”

The observance as we know it today was formalized by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 when he officially proclaimed the third Saturday of May 1961 and the third Saturday of May in each succeeding year as Armed Forces Day. This year’s observance will fall on May 21.

According to the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce, the Bremerton Armed Forces Day Parade is the largest and longest running Armed Forces Day Parade in the nation. The 75th Annual Armed Forces Day Festival in downtown Bremerton is May 21, with the parade starting at 10 a.m.


The origins of Memorial Day are not clear in history, with several places claiming to have originated the holiday. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, second commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30, as Decoration Day to decorate the graves of Union soldiers who died during the Civil War. Cities throughout the former Confederacy were also honoring their fallen service members.

After World War II, the name Memorial Day, which was first attested in 1882, gradually became more common than Decoration Day. However, the name Memorial Day was not declared the official holiday name by federal law until 1967.

June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

On Memorial Day, all U.S. flags should be displayed at half-staff during the morning hours. At noon, they should be raised back to full-staff. The Veterans of Foreign Wars recommends attending commemorative ceremonies as a visible way of demonstrating remembrance.

Placing flags at military gravesites, marching in parades, sponsoring patriotic programs, dedicating memorials and wearing "Buddy Poppies" are other ways to honor the nation's war dead, preserve their memory, and honor their service and sacrifice.