The National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, DC, is organized by the American Veterans Center, a non-profit educational organization located in Arlington, Virginia. The AVC that preserves and promotes the legacy and experiences of America’s veterans and active duty service personnel from World War II to the present day. As Memorial Day 2011 approaches, HistoryNet put three questions about the parade to Tim Holbert, executive director of the American Veterans Center.

Tim Holbert, executive director of the American Veterans Center.
Tim Holbert, executive director of the American Veterans Center. Memorial Day parades disappeared from the nation’s capital for over 70 years. Were they a victim of the Great Depression?

Tim Holbert: It is hard to say exactly why the tradition of a parade on Memorial Day ended in Washington. You see old news reports and recaps of parades that had taken place into the 1930s, but then they just ended. Perhaps the Depression had something to do with it, and the logistical challenges of putting together a parade in Washington probably made it more difficult to bring back. I have heard of earlier efforts to bring Memorial Day parades back to Washington, but none seem to have come to fruition.

HN: How did the custom of a national parade get revived?

TH: You might recall that it was Memorial Day weekend in 2004 that the National World War II Memorial was dedicated on the National Mall, which brought thousands and thousands of World War II veterans to Washington. Several individuals and organizations had the idea of holding a parade honoring the World War II generation as part of the dedication ceremonies. Since such an effort would prove too much for the Memorial dedication’s organizers to handle, we were asked to play a major role in pulling the parade together.

The mayor of Washington at the time, Mayor Anthony Williams, took part in the parade, and when it was over told us that this was an event that should be held every year. We looked around and asked ourselves, “Isn’t there already a Memorial Day parade in Washington?” When we looked into it further, we found that it had been decades since one had taken place. We thought that was just not acceptable; Memorial Day parades have been a tradition in cities and small towns across the country for well over a century, and yet Washington, DC – our nation’s capital and headquarters of the military – did not have one?

A float in The National Memorial Day Parade, Washington, DC.
A float in The National Memorial Day Parade, Washington, DC.
At the same time, you were reading a lot of stories about many of these small town parades fading away, as the World War II generation—which had really driven the organization of those parades—was starting to pass away. So what was intended to be a one-shot parade in salute of our World War II veterans was institutionalized in 2005 as The National Memorial Day Parade, and it has only grown since, with several hundred thousand spectators and national television coverage on several cable networks.

HN: This year, the parade is honoring a number of anniversaries that fall in 2011, as well a tribute to Special Operations teams like the one that took down Osama bin Laden. What are some of the anniversary commemorations?

TH: Perhaps the most moving part of this year’s parade will be a special section remembering the fallen of September 11, 2001, as we approach the 10th anniversary of the attacks. A number of family members of the fallen from the World Trade Center, Flight 93, and the Pentagon will be marching in honor of their loved ones. First responders from each site will be taking part, as well.

The parade will also be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War II, featuring survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor representing their fallen comrades. It will also have a great tribute to those who served in “The Forgotten Victory” of Korea, with Korean War vet Buzz Aldrin leading the contingent.

The parade will also make note of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War and the 20th anniversary of the Gulf War, and will feature nearly 600 active-duty service members, many of whom have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The parade’s Grand Marshal this year will be Pat Sajak, who joined the Army in 1968 and worked for Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam, and will also feature actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna, and will have a musical performance from Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan. It really should be a fantastic family event and hopefully call attention to the true purpose of Memorial Day.