Memorial Day can be many things. Since time immemorial, people around the world have celebrated the arrival of spring. With the welcoming of a new season, it is also a tradition to remember those loved ones who are no longer with us.
We pause to enjoy the colorful beauty of a new growing season and the scents of familiar flowers and mowed grass. And it is during this spring renewal that many of us decorate the graves of past friends and relatives. We remember their stories and reflect on our memories of them.
Memorial Day in America has its roots in the Civil War. It started as a day to mourn those who died while serving in the US military. In 1868, Decoration Day was made official by the veterans’ organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic. The Women’s Relief Corp was the auxiliary organization of the GAR and sponsored Decoration Days throughout the country. Communities began to hold formal services and honor the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. Over time, Decoration Day continued to be recognized annually, and after World War II the name evolved into Memorial Day. These memories have served to connect us with the past and keep the stories of our ancestors alive.
On Friday, May 27, there will be a Memorial Day commemoration at Brattleboro Union High School. A few months ago in this column we wrote about the discovery of a bronze tablet found in an unused hallway closet near the high school gymnasium. The 1920 tablet was originally installed prominently in the main hallway of the old Main Street High School, now the Civic Center. Eight former high school students who died while serving the United States in World War I are memorialized on the tablet.
Students at Brattleboro Area Middle School researched the history of the tablet and it was recently installed in the main entrance of BUHS. As part of the remembrance, the tablet will be re-dedicated and information about the eight former students from the WWI era will be shared with the public.
The tablet will be on display on the right side of the lobby as you enter the building. It hangs next to the old high school bell which is also on display in the lobby. The bell was made in 1877 and served as the high school bell in the two public high school buildings on Main Street that existed before Fairground Road High School was completed in 1951.
Additionally, the May 27 event will serve as a reminder of our community’s longstanding commitment to public education. One hundred and eighty years ago, Brattleboro launched a comprehensive public education program accessible to all youth ages 4-18. For decades, the program served as a model for the rest of the state.
As part of the ceremony, Richard Hamilton, a World War II veteran and graduate of Brattleboro High School’s (BHS) Class of 1940, will speak to the audience about his public school experiences at the old high school and about the importance of Memorial Day. Mr. Hamilton will celebrate his 100th birthday in September and we are honored that he accepted our invitation to participate in this local Memorial Day recognition.
Richard Hamilton grew up on a farm in West Brattleboro and was raising chickens when World War II began. He entered military service in December 1942 and trained to become a radio operator-gunner on a B-17 bomber. The aircraft was stationed in England and carrying out bombing raids over Germany.
In July 1944, his plane, nicknamed “Destiny’s Child”, was shot down while on its way to a German airfield. The plane was attacked by enemy fighters and caught fire while still carrying its load of bombs. Five crew members were able to bail out but the pilot, navigator and a third crew member were killed. Mr Hamilton parachuted from the burning plane and landed safely in a farmer’s field. However, he was captured by German civilians and handed over to military personnel. For nine months he was held with about 10,000 other soldiers in a German POW camp.
In 1944, American and Russian troops were closing in on German military camps. German guards ordered Mr Hamilton and other prisoners to leave the camp and walk with them as they sought to avoid their own capture. Mr Hamilton traveled over 70 miles before the Germans decided to free him and seek their own escape.
While at the camp, his diet consisted mostly of watered down cabbage soup. Mr. Hamilton was very weak after his forced march but was lucky to find his way to the American lines. He was malnourished and weighed only 118 pounds. He spent two weeks recovering in a hospital before becoming strong enough to return to the United States for a few months.
A 60-day leave allowed him to return home to Brattleboro. He arrived on July 8, 1944. Richard Hamilton returned home to see his family and also to visit his high school sweetheart, Joyce White. On August 2, just under a month after Richard arrived home, the City Clerk’s Office issued marriage licenses to the two young men and they were married August 8 at St. Michael.
Mr. Hamilton had spent nine months in a POW camp, but was still expected to return to service after his leave ended. The plans were for him to become a member of a B-29 flight crew and head to the West Coast. The bombers were to be part of the invasion of Japan. It was about a week after the wedding that Japan surrendered and World War II ended. Mr. Hamilton did not have to train for an invasion of Japan and was soon back in civilian clothes. Together, Richard and Joyce went on to raise four daughters and operate the Skyline restaurant on Hogback Mountain.
Organizing this event was a collaborative effort of the Brattleboro Historical Society, Brattleboro Union High School and Brattleboro Area Middle School. Weather permitting, the event will take place on the steps of the BUHS at 1:30 p.m. on May 27. The public is invited. If we have to be indoors due to inclement weather, we will not be able to accommodate the public due to space restrictions and COVID protocols.