Thursday, May 25, 2017

Memorial Day in a time of war

Lucas County Historical Society collection.
Charles F. Wennerstrum --- district court judge, Iowa Supreme Court justice and a presiding judge during the Nuremberg Trials --- was one of Lucas County's most distinguished jurists.

Also a veteran of World War I, Judge Wennerstrum --- then in his mid-50s --- sat down during May of 1945 to write a guest editorial headlined "Memorial Day --- 1945" for The Herald-Patriot, published in its May 31 edition.

At the time the world was suspended between V-E Day, May 2, which had marked the end of World War II in Europe, and V-J Day, Sept. 2, the date of Japanese surrender.

Take a moment to go back more than 60 years, now, and read his words:


We observe Memorial Day in 1945 with mixed emotions. The cessation of the war in Europe has brought our country a feeling of subdued satisfaction that part of our war tasks is completed. We are all conscious of the fact that the responsibility for the successful conclusion of the war with Japan still is our further obligation. Our job is only half done.

The quiet observance of V-E day gave evidence of the fact that all of us have been touched by the stark realities of the ravages of war. There is hardly a family that has not been affected. And so on Memorial Day in 1945 all of us have particular reason to pay solemn homage to those men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice in the European and Japanese wars. In paying honor to those who have given their all for their country during these later conflicts we are not unmindful of the sacrifices made by many in World War I and the other armed conflicts in which our nation has been involved.

Memorial Day is by its very name a day of memories. It is a day when we give official recognition to the memory of those of the armed services of all wars who have passed to the great Beyond. Although it is primarily a day of memories it is, and should be, a day of dedication. If our memories are purposeful we must dedicate our efforts to the completion of the tasks for which others gave of their lives and efforts in the present and past wars. If we do not make it a day of dedication and high resolve, the observance of this day is a mere formality.

We must seek to gain from this day an inspiration to carry on the work that they who sacrificed left unfinished. The growth of freedom in all nations, the care of the oppressed, the aid to under-privileged children, and last but not least, the care of those ravaged by battle conflict in mind and body is the responsibility of the living. This is our duty to which we should dedicate our efforts. To this task on each Memorial Day we must ever realize that except by our dedication to complete the work they began, the sacrifices of our dead heroes will have been in vain.

The American Legion and other veteran organizations have been organized to carry on the work so sacrificially began by those that gave their all. It is not alone the task of members of these organizations. It is the responsibility of all citizens. Let us all be mindful of this responsibility.


Judge Wennerstrum arrived in Chariton during 1915, a year after earning his law degree from Drake University, then headed off to war two years later. Upon his return, he served as county attorney and, during 1930, was appointed judge of Iowa's Second Judicial District, then was elected to two full terms. In 1940, he was elected Iowa Supreme Court justice and continued to serve in that position until 1958. He also served two full years --- in six-month increments --- as chief justice.

President Harry S. Truman named Wennerstrum a Nuremburg Tribunals judge during 1947 and he served in that capacity until February of 1948 when he returned to Chariton with his wife, Helen, and daughter, Joann, and resumed his seat on the Iowa Supreme Court bench.

After retirement from the bench, he entered private law practice in Des Moines and moved there from Chariton during 1959. He died in Des Moines on June 1, 1986, age 96, and his remains were returned to Chariton for burial beside his wife and son, Roger.


Memorial Day was moved during 1971 from its traditional date, May 30, to the final Monday in May, tagged onto the end of a three-day holiday weekend. Perhaps that's made it more of a challenge to remember the founding purpose of the day.

It was not established as a day to celebrate the return of summer --- or principally to decorate the graves of  all our deceased family members and friends. It isn't a day to honor all veterans (that's Veterans Day, Nov. 11) nor is it a day to honor those currently serving in the armed forces (that's Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May). And "Happy Memorial Day" just isn't an appropriate greeting.

It remains a day of solemn remembrance and rededication. As Judge Wennerstum put it, "To this task on each Memorial Day we must ever realize that except by our dedication to complete the work they began, the sacrifices of our dead heroes will have been in vain."

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