On Memorial Day weekend, my attention is focused toward honoring those who gave their lives in defense of our country. If current plans hold, I will spend some time at Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which has some rather strong Memorial Day ties, even a good claim to be the “first” town to hold a Memorial Day.
One of my favorite activities, no matter where I am this time of year, is to visit a war memorial. I’ll often select a memorial in an often overlooked location (and many sit on courthouse lawn, in plain sight, overlooked by hundreds if not thousands). During these visits I focus my thoughts on the memorial’s components – artwork, text, composition, and location. To me, these components tell us much about the people honored by the memorial, but perhaps more so how the people who placed the memorial felt. I have not selected my memorial this weekend. Likely it will be one of many in Central Pennsylvania as we are weekending with family.
But I’ve already “driven over” one war memorial – A section of the Blue Star Highway. Indeed, if one travels any distance at all this weekend, you would be hard pressed NOT to use a part of the memorial highway system.
The Blue Star Memorial Highway dates back to World War II when first began by the predecessor of the National Garden Club. The intent was to link the club’s goal of beautifying by-ways with that of honoring the servicemen and women. While similar set-asides and parks have been around practically since the beginning of our nation, the highway project was the first (and only, to my knowledge) to approach such a grand scale. By adding trees, shrubs, flowers, and other landscaping features to the roadways, the club turned entire strips of land into war memorials.
However, I must clarify one point with regard to the Blue Star signs and the Historical Marker Database. Some time back we opted, for editorial purposes, to disallow Blue Star signs. Yes, at first glance those signs, such as the one pictured above, look like “historical markers.” But we felt the signs themselves lacked the requisite properties to be classified either as markers, or by themselves, as memorials. Our reasoning was the memorial was the highway itself, not the sign.
The highway itself… and that tells me something about how those who made the initial designation, and to a degree how we Americans to this day, view military service.
The highway is Blue, not Gold, Star, thus is honoring all who served (Gold Star is reserved for those who died in service). Perhaps, and such is my opinion not that of the founders of the system, the designation indicates any service in the armed forces should be respected and honored. Service for the country, no matter how routine the assignment, means subordinating one’s needs to those of the country. While higher honors and memorials often relate to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and thus are Gold Stars, the highway system looked at sacrifice in a broader context.
Consider the use of flora and landscaping. Yes, the club’s over-arching goal is to add beauty to America, by reducing blight. But I find it somewhat symbolic of how we Americans perceive military service. No matter how brutal, we tend to look towards a war’s end state as renewal. Americans didn’t focus on conquest but rather to set the world right. While some might well contest that perception, given military actions of the last fifty years, but in 1945 we looked to rebuild a better world. How better to honor service which brought forth that end state than a garden.
Instead of placing that garden in a town center or cemetery, these memorials stand at intersections, round-abouts, traffic control points, rest stops, or plots beside the highway. In almost direct contradiction of the Civil War generation, or even that of the World War I generation, those of the World War II era (and we today) sought to bring the memorial out from the town square. The highway links Americans as a vital part of our infrastructure. World War II bonded Americans, perhaps as never before or since, and the service of those men and women was the link that held that bond.
But highways are so commonplace that we seldom consider them in our daily lives. We drive on them daily, but how often do we consider the importance? We thrive under the peace and stability, but do we often think of the sacrifices made to ensure those? Perhaps without intending to, those who created the Blue Star Highway provided an analogy for us to consider.
The only issue I’ve ever raised with the Blue Star Highway has been that signage. While it is nice to have the signs to remind us, and certainly proper to indicate the local organization which supported the local improvements, I just find the text of the signs lacking. Some of the signs offer a bit more background than others. But other than mention of the local club or chapter, nothing links the memorial to the locality. My suggestion, to anyone listening, is to add references to local heroes or locally raised units. I think it would be nice to know a Medal of Honor awardee lived nearby, or similar bit of local history. Such would fully tie the memorial to the locality.
Next time you happen to travel on a Blue Star Memorial Highway, take some time to consider the memorial and what it means. Consider the components of the memorial, and perhaps complement or refute the interpretations I’ve offered here. But above all, please recall the highway is a memorial to those who served.