We have a wide land in freehold

- Art by Elisabeth Vines

 

 If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.

                                    — John McCrae
 

The roots of Memorial Day come from the war that tore our nation asunder.

The Civil War touched the life of every American. It killed 650,000 to 850,000 soldiers outright as well as countless civilians.

After the war, in the North and in the South, the graves of fallen soldiers were decorated with flowers.

Jessie Kratz writes in “Pieces of History” for the National Archives about the evolution of Decoration Day into Memorial Day.

John Alexander Logan is widely credited with founding the holiday. In 1862, he resigned his seat in Congress, as a Democrat representing Illinois, to volunteer for the Union Army. Though wounded, he persevered, rising up the ranks to become a major general, the commanding officer of the entire Army of the Tennessee.

When the war was over, Logan returned to politics but as a member of Abraham Lincoln’s party, a Republican. He was elected again to the House and later the Senate and became the first Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans group.

In 1867, Kratz reported, Martha G. Kimball wrote to Logan from her home in Philadelphia after a visit through the southern United States of “southern women decorating the graves of their dead, fallen in battle.” She urged Logan to “have our heroic soldiers whose lonely graves are, many unmarked, remembered in the same beautiful way.”

On May 5, 1868, Logan issued “General Orders No. 11” to the members of the GAR, designating May 30, 1868, as the day for the “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars formed in 1898 after the Spanish-American War and the American Legion was created after World War I. After the Great War, Memorial Day was widely celebrated to honor the dead of all wars the United States had fought in.

A poem titled “For Memorial Day,” published on the front page of The Altamont Enterprise on May 29, 1925 reflected this history. It was written by Helderberg poet W. W. Christman whose son, Lansing, became editor of The Enterprise.

The poem names battles going back to the Revolutionary War that forged our nation, and battles fought in the Spanish-American War and during World War I, which had ended just seven years before.

“The little flags are bleached and sere/ We laid upon their graves last year./ The flowers are dust and blown away/ We brought a year ago today,” Christman’s poem begins. “Since naught we give for long endures/ We bring again new flags and flowers/ To deck the graves these old elms shade/Where our immortal dead are laid.”

While “our brave dead offered up their all” and the flags and flowers honoring them seem “cheap and small,” Christman says, “Their gift, their offering endures.”

He writes, “Because our soldier-sires were bold/ We have a wide land in freehold,/A starred flag flapping in the breeze/Over free souls between free seas.”

“The war to end all wars” of course did not live up to its billing. If W. W. Christman were writing today, he would have to add battles from Korea, and from World War II, and from Vietnam, and from the Middle East.

Perhaps the best way to honor our fallen soldiers is to work towards a world without war.

While some of us still decorate the graves of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, the modern celebration focuses on parades and picnics.

We’ve run letters in recent weeks inviting people to come to parades in Voorheesville or the Hilltowns or Esperance, which follows a tradition started in 1880 by the George A. Turnbull Post 157 Grand Army of the Republic.

We love these celebrations and cover them each year because they bring communities together. In our age of polarization, it can be transformative to gather with neighbors — neighbors of different political parties, different religions, different world views, and see what we have in common.

The speakers at these Memorial Day celebrations often make us realize what it is our soldiers fought and died for — the freedom to worship as we choose or not to worship at all, the freedom to speak our minds and publish our ideas, the freedom to gather peaceably and to seek redress from our government.

Beyond the First Amendment, and our reverence for those freedoms, we need to understand that our nation is made of peoples with varying cultures and ways of life and we need to respect that. We also need to be responsible for those who are hurting or weak.

The war that led to Memorial Day was meant to emancipate enslaved people. But many African Americans are still suffering from inequities. As we celebrate our freedoms, we must acknowledge we still have work to do.

We are pleased to honor the grand marshal that Altamont chose to lead its parade last Sunday. Ken Bailey, at 102, is a humble man whose friends see him as a hero. He epitomizes an American who was called on to do his duty and served with honor.

We interviewed him almost a decade ago when Bailey was being awarded a French Legion of Honor Medal “for your contribution to the liberation of our country,” wrote the president of France.

Bailey was in the thick of the war in Europe, earning five major Battle Stars and a Bronze Star, too. He trained on motorcycles and ended up driving officers in an armored car. 

“I was in five battles,” said Bailey. The worst may have been the Battle of the Bulge.

“We never ran out of gas or ammunition but we ran out of food,” he said. The American soldiers lived for weeks on black bread and hunted deer as they watched out for food that was booby-trapped to explode.

But Bailey had fond memories of food elsewhere during the war. “I had my first ice cream in Liège … vanilla; it was delicious,” said Bailey. He also recalled a woman and her daughter coming out to the armored car he drove in Brussels, also in Belgium.

“They gave us waffles, which were great, but their milk was hot and curdled. We were taking food away from them so I pretended I liked the milk. I almost threw up.”

Such details are as engraved on his psyche as surely as the horrors of battle. He describes his war years in the same narrative style as he chronicles his youth — the everyday anecdotes matter as much as the grand historic moments.

Bailey, who was raised in Delmar, has Altamont roots. His mother, Gladys Crounse, was born on Oct. 3, 1899 on the Crounse farm off of Gardner Road; she lived to be 100. 

“My mom walked the railroad tracks to Altamont for school,” said Bailey. “She’d hide her muddy shoes under a bush before she got to school and put on her good shoes so Altamont kids wouldn’t ride her.”

She went to school until the 10th grade when she was 15, stopping school because her mother died. “Then she took care of the household,” said Bailey; this included her father and four brothers.

His father, Henry Bailey, was born on July 1, 1896 and worked as a maintenance mechanic at the A&P bakery in Albany before becoming a carpenter.

His first job was driving a bakery wagon for his father. Meanwhile, Roy Crounse, one of Gladys’s brothers, drove a butcher wagon with meat from the Crounse farm. 

“Uncle Roy took my father to the farm to meet his sister,” said Bailey, describing how his parents got together. “People said, ‘If those kids ever get married, they’ll never go hungry. They’ll have bread and meat.’”

Bailey started working when he was 10 at the Laverys’ truck farm; he made 10 cents an hour weeding the carrot and lettuce patches. “Your knees got covered with mud,” he recalled.

When he was 12, he would ride his bike to the fairgrounds in Altamont.

“I’d park my bike and hide it and climb a tree to watch the auto racing, until they chased us out,” he said with a laugh.

At 13, he got to work in the two-car garage at the farm for Mrs. Lavery’s stepson — setting the course for his life.

When Bailey graduated from high school, he worked at the garage full-time and, after his boss was drafted, he went to work for Orange Motors. He started there in 1941, came back to work at Orange after the war, staying for a total of 46 years until his retirement.

He met the woman who would become his wife, Florence Eckler, at Sport Haven on Kenwood Avenue in Delmar, when she was 17 and he was 18.

“Downstairs was roller-skating and upstairs was bowling,” said Bailey. “One Friday night, I got my nerve up and asked her to skate. We skated ever since. I’ve still got her skates …. If you want to see how true love should be, then just look at us.”

Bailey was drafted a month after he married. He was stationed at Fort Meade in South Dakota and was proud to be a member of the 4th Cavalry. “It’s very old, from the old West,” he said. “It was started in 1856.”

The cavalry no longer had horses; they were let go in April 1942, Bailey said. “We had just one horse,” he said. The commanding officer, Colonel Joseph Tully, would ride it on the parade grounds.

Before his unit shipped out to Britain, Bailey got to meet his newborn son on furlough. “It was wonderful,” he said.

In England, his unit trained for six months for D-Day, the invasion at Normandy, without being told what it was. When they finally embarked, Bailey was the last one on the LST so he would be the first one off. 

LST stands for Landing Ship, Tank; LSTs were created during World War II to carry vehicles, troops and cargo directly onto shore. 

“This was six days after D-Day,” he said. “The 63 men in my outfit were the first to land on French soil,” on islands off the coast.

“The worst thing we seen were parachuters still hung up in a tree, just left hanging there. It was very emotional,” he said.

He also said, “Before we landed, the LST opens like garage doors and the ramp comes out.” The water, he said, was 13 feet deep. “I can’t swim. I thought, ‘I’ll hold my breath and keep the wheels straight.’”

But, as it turned out, he didn’t have to. “We waited till the tide was out.” Then the water was six feet deep. “That was no trouble,” he said.

As part of the 7th Corps, 1st Army, Bailey made his way through France toward Paris. “Every night, we’d hook up to hedgerows and put camouflage over. Bed-check Charlie would fly over and tip his wings,” said Bailey.

In August 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Dunn was in the M20 armored car with Bailey and his crew when they found themselves behind enemy lines, surrounded by SS Panzer tanks during the Mortain counterattack. 

“Germans had surrounded the whole infantry,” said Bailey. “I drove the car into a river bed where they couldn’t see us. We were below their line of sight. I thought we’d have to leave the car. I couldn’t get out. So I cut trees to make a road bed to get out,” he said.

Later Colonel Tully told him,  ‘If you’d left it, I’d send you back after it.’”

He never knew if the colonel was joking, he said.

“I got the Bronze Star for that,” said Bailey. “I was very honored.”

On Nov. 27, Col. Tully was made general for the 9th Infantry Division and two days later John MacDonald took over as commander of the 1st Army, 4th Cavalry and 3rd Army, 2nd Armored Division.

Bailey outfitted a jeep with a bar so MacDonald could “stand up and direct,” he said.

He described MacDonald as being of the old school, wearing a cavalryman’s riding clothes. “He’s a West Pointer. He’s boots and britches with a riding crop, like for a horse,” said Bailey, speaking with immediacy in the present tense. “He loves the Jeep.”

MacDonald led his men in battle, using the Jeep that Bailey outfitted and drove the way a military leader of old might have used a horse. He led an armored attack against a German force of 90 Panzer tanks at the battle of Humain in Belgium.

“He led the charge of the 4th Cavalry,” said Bailey. “I had to drive along armored cars and tanks. He’s holding on to that bar with one hand and holding a riding crop in the other hand.” If a tank had made a sharp turn, it would have run them over.

“I wrote in my notes, I wrote ‘crazy,’” Bailey recalled. “It was crazy driving alongside those tanks like you’re on a horse. He was new and wanted to show what he could do.”

Bailey concluded, “It went good — real dirty.”

Bailey went on, “We took Aachen — twice. They pushed us out and we pushed back in. It was our first city in Germany. General Eisenhower drove through. He was excited and waved to us. That’s the closest I ever got to Ike.”

Bailey ended the war 60 miles from Leipzig. “We met the Russians there,” he said. 

Finally, in October, he made the 11-day trip home on a Merchant Marine ship and was discharged from Fort Dix on Oct. 30.

He arrived at Albany’s Union Station on Broadway on Nov. 1, with no fanfare, and no one to greet him.

“I got a taxi,” Bailey recalled. He threw his duffle bag in the backseat. At 2 a.m., he pulled up to his parents’ home on Kenwood Avenue in Delmar, where his wife and son were living.

“She came jumping out and that was it,” he said. He was home and in the embrace of his beloved wife.

In his old age, Bailey, a self-described “lowly corporal,” is getting the fanfare and recognition he deserves.

We salute you, Corporal Bailey.

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