Connecticut

How New England Observed Memorial Day in WWII

New England observed Memorial Day during World War II with special solemnity. For many, the memory of fallen heroes was fresh, raw and intense.

The Roosevelt administration sent photographers into the field to record how Americans honored their war dead. They worked for the Office of War Information, and would go on to lead illustrious careers.

How Ashland, Maine Observed Memorial Day

Rural Aroostook County lost 239 young men in World War II, either missing in action, killed in action or killed in the line of duty.

Many of the young men from tiny Ashland, Maine, in the county were drafted, and so Memorial Day took on a somber significance.

ashland rifles

Legionnaires and Boy Scouts

The town, a farming community, had fewer than 1,000 residents, so the ceremonies featured hardly any young men.

John Collier took these photos of the ceremonies in Ashland in 1943 for the Office of War Information. After the war, he became an anthropologist and an early leader in the fields of visual anthropology and applied anthropology.

In Ashland, Collier noticed all boys and young men marched in the Memorial Day parade. Almost none watched from the audience.

ashland observed memorial day

The parade about to begin

Below, a Congregational minister offered a prayer for divine guidance through the years of war.

ashland minister

Prayers

Though only a small farming center with a population under 1000, Ashland had a good band with lots of purple trim and gold braid for the Memorial Day ceremony.

ashland band

Keeping the beat

A bugler sounded Taps during the ceremonies.

ashland taps

Honoring their sacrifice

Gloucester, Mass., on May 31, 1943

Gordon Parks took these photos showing how Gloucester, Mass., observed Memorial Day in 1943. Parks, then 30, was working for the Office of War Information. He would later become well known for his photo essays of the civil rights movement for Life magazine — and for directing the 1971 film Shaft.

He also composed music and wrote fiction and poetry. His best known work is The Learning Tree, an autobiographical novel about a poor young African American growing up in segregated rural Kansas during the late 1920s and early 1930s. He received 20 honorary doctorates before he died in 2006 at the age of 93.

Here he captures one of the speakers at the Gloucester Memorial Day ceremony.

Solemn words

Gloucester, a fishing community, also held memorial services for fishermen lost at sea. Here relatives of fishermen wait their turn to toss flowers into the water.

Waiting their turn.

A Legionnaire played Taps during the Gloucester ceremony.

Again

When the parade ended, the ROTC band took a rest.

Southington, Conn., 1942

These Memorial Day photos of Southington, Conn., were taken by Fenno Jacobs during World War II for the Office of War Information. Jacobs, born in Waltham, Mass., was a rebellious child who didn’t get past the eighth grade. He joined the Merchant Marine, then took up photography. By the time the OWI hired him he had worked for Time, Life and National Geographic. 

Jacobs belonged to a team of photographers who spent the month in Southington, Conn., taking pictures of residents at work and at leisure. The photos were compiled into a booklet designed to show friends and enemies in Europe the traditions and values of typical American families. Military planes dropped thousands of copies over Europe during the German occupation.

The photo below shows the parade marching past the Southington Town Hall on Memorial Day in 1942.

The flag at half-staff

Southington had a large number of residents with German, Polish and Italian ancestry. Their immigrant ancestors came to work in the mills during the 19th century.

A nicely decorated bicycle on the left

The Catholic congregation gathered in the St. Thomas cemetery for an outdoor Mass.

Remembering those who have passed

After World War II, Southington became a bedroom community and the population grew to over 42,000 people.

After the parade

Photos courtesy Library of Congress. This story was updated in 2021.

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