Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. It was first observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic.
During that first national celebration, former Union Gen. and Ohio Congressman, James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there. He proclaimed, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
It would be 140 years later that Manitowoc’s own Robert Tills would be buried at Arlington and honored for his service and sacrifice to our country. Tills was born March 9, 1918 in Manitowoc, son of William and Adelaide Tills. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a seaman second class in 1937 at the age of19. Two years later, he was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve and by April 1941, Tills gained regular Navy status and was soon flying patrols in the Philippines.
Tills was scheduled to return home to Wisconsin on leave for Christmas in 1941 to be married. But early on December 8, 1941, just 8 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, one seaplane began a search of the Philippine seas for signs of the Japanese. Two other seaplanes, including Tills', remained in Malalag Bay. Japanese fighter planes "strafed the helpless PBYs, turning them into collanders of metal and fabric and setting them afire," according to the Navy records. "Ensign Robert Tills died in the fusillade of bullets." The rest of the crew escaped unharmed and the aircraft sank to the bottom of the bay with Tills's remains still on board. Robert Tills' body was not recovered and he joined a list with 78,000 other Americans missing in action during World War II. Tills was the first Navy officer to be lost in defense of the Philippine Islands during WWII.
More than 65 years later, in 2007, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was notified by U.S. authorities in the Philippines that aircraft wreckage had been discovered in Malalag Bay under more than 60 feet of water. A fragment of the wreckage bore the markings “PBY-4.” The next month, a team traveled to the site and recovered human remains. Forensic tools were able to identify the remains as Robert Tills.
In December, 2008, the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced that the remains of Tills had been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Tills was buried on March 23, 2009 in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.