It all started in Waterloo, N.Y., in the late 1860s. The people of that small upstate town thought it appropriate that a flower be placed on the graves of those that had fallen during America's bloodiest conflict to that date.
The ceremony and the remembrance spread from there across the land. It became known as Decoration Day, and the flowers were joined by small Stars and Stripes on each grave where a fallen warrior lay at rest.
In 1882, May 30 was designated as the official day for Americans to honor their war dead. At that time, it encompassed every conflict from Valley Forge to Appomattox.
In 1950, the name was changed to Memorial Day, but the date remained May 30. In 1971, Memorial Day became part of the Monday Holiday legislative package passed by Congress to give Americans more three-day holidays.
Whether its inclusion in that package heightened or lessened its significance as a national day of remembrance and reverence remains a subject of debate. But, there is no debate about the simple declarative statement that captures the essence of the day. It is inscribed on the wall of the Korean War Memorial — "Freedom Is Not Free."
That fact is personified by the nation's two most costly conflicts, in human terms. The Civil War claimed 214,938, and World War II accounted for 291,557 dead, according to official figures from the Veterans Affairs Department.
Add to that World War I at 53,402, Korea at 36,516, and Vietnam at 58,198, and Memorial Day is a lot more than beach, picnics and parades. It is the answer to Edmund Burke's warning: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
ONE OF THOSE good men, among the many thousands now embedded in the daily life of freedom, is Nicholas R. Beltrante, a resident of Mount Vernon District, who at 17, decided to forgo his senior year at Atlantic City High School to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Instead of attending a prom, he joined the Marines at Okinawa.
"I was at sea when my class graduated," said the former Navy hospital corpsman. "The Marine Corps does not have a medical unit. That is handled by the Navy, and we went ashore with the Marines."
Upon completing a four-week course at the Navy Hospital Corps School at Bainbridge, Md., Beltrante was assigned to the hospital ship Consolation. "First we were assigned to European Theater and operated in the Atlantic, then we went to the Pacific," he explained. "After Okinawa we were preparing to handle major casualties from the planned invasion of Japan, but the atomic bombs made that unnecessary. Our next stop was Tokyo Harbor, where we picked up American and other prisoners of war. Most were in terrible condition," Beltrante recalled.
THE MISSION, known as “Operation Magic Carpet," transported patients and dependents to West Coast medical facilities. The Consolation returned to Norfolk Naval Station in March 1946.
It was one of 15 Navy hospital ships operating during World War II, according to Beltrante. "She was small, compared to the USS Comfort today," he acknowledged. "The Comfort can handle 1,200 patients and has 12 operating rooms. We could handle 500 patients and only had four operating rooms."
On July 13, 1950, battle duty called again for the Consolation, and she set sail for Pusan, Korea. Working with the Army 8054 MASH, she became the major medical facility in the Korean conflict.
In a strange twist of fate, just five years after evacuating prisoners from Japan, the staff of the Consolation was now treating patients and evacuating them to Japan. She also provided support for the invasions of Inchon and Wonsan and the evacuation of Hungnam.
Following his return from the Pacific Theater, Beltrante was assigned to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital's amputee ward. "We had guys from all over. Doctors tried to save their limbs as much as possible but most were too badly injured," he said.
After Philadelphia he went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he was discharged in December 1946. "In those days if you enlisted before graduating from high school but were in your senior year, they gave you a War Diploma," Beltrante explained. "So after the war I took advantage of the GI Bill."
As his first educational endeavor he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Institute of Criminology. "At that time, it was the only school in the nation to specialize in teaching criminology," Beltrante said.
"After graduating, I saw an ad in the Philadelphia paper that the District of Columbia was hiring police officers and paying $3,077 a year. That was big money then. The New Jersey State Police were only paying $1,800 a year."
THE OTHER MAIN drawback to the State Police was that you had to live in the barracks while on duty, according to Beltrante. "I had had enough of that lifestyle during the war, and I wanted to get married," he confessed.
In 1949 he married his sweetheart, Patricia, from Clifton, N.J. They moved to Washington, bought a house with a 2 percent mortgage, and had three children: a son Michael and two daughters, Susan and Janice. They all live in the Mount Vernon area today, as do the couple’s 13 grandchildren.
Beltrante started as a uniformed police officer but was promoted to detective in 1953. He retired as a detective sergeant in 1963 due to a service-connected disability. That's when he started Beltrante and Associates, a professional investigation firm headquartered on Andrus Road in the Mount Vernon area. He also graduated from LaSalle Law School in 1967 and is a member of the Virginia Bar.
"We are the oldest private investigating firm in Virginia. We hold license No. 1," he said. "I worked hard to get the law passed to license private investigators. There were too many people on the street who just didn't know what they were doing."
But his Navy days and the sacrifices of World War II are never off his interest radar. Lining the walls of his Mount Vernon offices are World War II and Navy memorabilia, with his various medals including his World War II Victory Medal.
Last October he and his wife visited the cemeteries at Normandy, France, where 9,387 Americans are interred. Most died within 24 hours of landing on "Omaha Beach" June 6, 1944. Beltrante describes his visit there as, "I walked on this hallowed ground — a part of heaven on our earth."
He is now actively involved with a project to establish another memorial — a Naval Medical Museum in the District of Columbia at the site of the first Navy Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln in 1866.
Under the aegis of the Naval Medical Museum/Navy Medicine Memorial Foundation, the plan is "to reacquire the building from the GSA and turn it into a true medical museum dedicated to the history of naval medicine," explained Jan K. Herman, historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Navy Medical Department, Office Surgeon General of the Navy.
"Once the building is acquired, then fund-raising can commence. It will require a lot of money to restore it, because nothing has been done toward upkeep for years," Herman verified. "And the Navy has not made a firm commitment at this point."
FOUNDER OF THE project is Daniel S. Donahue, who served with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam as a dental technician and field corpsman from 1964-68. "Both sailors and Marines are backing this project," Donahue emphasized. "We are waiting to see if the surgeon general wants to acquire the building."
Herman pointed out, "The Army medical corps has such a museum at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. The original Army museum was on the Mall. It was then moved to Walter Reed. Eventually, that became an overall medical museum not tied to any one service."
Donahue noted, "Navy medicine started with wooden ships, and we have had an active presence from then to the space program. In fact, two medical personnel were lost with the Columbia tragedy."
He added, "We have done work on everything from nutrition to AIDS. There are over 70 medical specialties in the U.S. Navy medical corps. Navy medical has always been there."
That fact was buttressed by R.A. Nelson, vice admiral, Medical Corps, Surgeon General of the Navy. "Navy medicine is as old as the nation, beginning with the assignment of two surgeons to vessels of the Continental Navy in 1775. I have always felt there should be a museum to honor the contributions of the men and women who dedicate themselves to caring for sick and injured sailors and Marines.
"When I heard of the plan to rescue the old Naval Hospital ... for that purpose, I realized immediately that a rare opportunity now exists to achieve that goal."
Herman emphasized, "For many years much of the heritage of Navy medicine — the documents and artifacts — have sought a proper home. ... What more appropriate site could there be in the nation's capital than the first U.S. Naval Hospital?"
Situated on a three-quarter-acre triangular lot, the three-story brick edifice containing nearly 20,000 square feet of space was built at an original cost of $114,000. It also contains a 2,200-square-foot, two-story stable.
What we now call Memorial Day and the first U.S. Naval Hospital came into being in the same turbulent era, when these United States nearly became un-united. The Union was preserved. Beltrante and the others hope to do the same for "The Old Naval Hospital."