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Commemorating Memorial Day overseas

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Many Americans commemorate Memorial Day at American cemeteries overseas. (Source: MGN Online) Many Americans commemorate Memorial Day at American cemeteries overseas. (Source: MGN Online)
Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines is the largest American cemetery overseas. (Source: ABMC) Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines is the largest American cemetery overseas. (Source: ABMC)
Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium is the smallest American military cemetery overseas. (Source: ABMC) Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium is the smallest American military cemetery overseas. (Source: ABMC)
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(RNN) – Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, but the true meaning of the holiday is far more solemn. The day is set aside to commemorate the men and women who died while in military service.

There are 114 national cemeteries across the country, but did you know that there are also 25 American military cemeteries in foreign countries?

Memorial Day's origins are begin with Decoration Day. People decorated the graves of those who fought in the Civil War, and eventually, the tradition spread across the U.S. and morphed into our modern Memorial Day holiday.

In 1862 during the Civil War, the U.S. government established a permanent national cemetery system and the first national Memorial Day commemoration was held at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868.

Prior to World War I, the bodies of Americans who died in foreign wars were returned to the United States, because the custom at the time was to bury the war dead in local cemeteries.

During WWI, there was support for the creation of permanent U.S. military cemeteries overseas, but many families opposed the idea, desiring to bury the war dead in hometown cemeteries. Congress and the War Department allowed families the right to choose where a soldier would be buried.

The American Battle Monuments Commission was established by Congress in 1923. Created to honor the service, achievements and sacrifices of the U.S. Armed Forces, their mission includes designing, constructing, operating and maintaining permanent American cemeteries in foreign countries.

During WWI, the War Department established eight foreign burial grounds for the war dead, most of them in France.

The ABMC became responsible for those burial grounds, and for future permanent American military burial grounds in foreign countries through a 1934 Presidential Executive Order.

In Word War II, many temporary burial grounds were established by the U.S. Army on battlefields around the world. In 1947, the Secretary of the Army and the ABMC chose 14 sites based upon the course of military operations and the temporary cemeteries were disestablished. Afterward, all remains were permanently interred based on the wishes of the next of kin.

No overseas cemeteries were established for the Korean or Vietnam Wars. Instead, American war dead were returned to the U.S. for burial in private or national cemeteries.

There are 124,908 U.S. war dead buried in American cemeteries overseas. The names of tens of thousands of service members missing in action are memorialized at each of the cemeteries.

With 17,202 burials, and 36,286 names on its Walls of the Missing, the largest ABMC cemetery is Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

The smallest is Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium with 368 burials and 43 names listed on its Walls of the Missing.

Notable WWI burials include American writer and poet, Joyce Kilmer, who is buried at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. Cpl. Freddie Stowers is buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Cpl. Stowers is an African American who posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 1991.

Famed Gen. George S. Patton is buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg per his request to "be buried with my men."

Notable WWII burials include Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the brother of President John F. Kennedy who is commemorated on the Walls of the missing at Cambridge American Cemetery. 2nd Lt. Preston Niland and Sgt. Robert Niland, the brothers who inspired the film Saving Private Ryan, are buried at Normandy American Cemetery in France.

These overseas American cemeteries, along with national cemeteries in the United States, serve as sites for public tributes. Memorial Day ceremonies are held every year at each of the ABMC cemeteries.

On June 6, 2014, the ABMC plans to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion with a bi-national ceremony at Normandy American Cemetery.

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