Special Report

Washington’s Finest Parade

Marching on Memorial Day with Ernest Borgnine and the Kissing Nurse.

By 5.26.09

Send to Kindle

The Memorial Day parade, a relatively new tradition in Washington, D.C., may be the city's best, avoiding the extreme temperatures and humongous crowds of July 4 and Inaugural parades. This year's parade grand marshals were two American icons, actor and World War II veteran Ernest Borgnine, and former World War II era nurse Edith Shain, the probable kissing nurse of the famed V-J Day photo from Times square.

A virtually ageless 92, Borgnine robustly waved and shouted from the back of a vintage convertible, which abruptly departed the Constitution Avenue parade route and turned towards the World War II Memorial on 17th Street. A second open convertible carrying the equally spry and approximately 92-year-old Nurse Shain also veered to the left, following Borgnine, even as their respective banner carriers somewhat confusingly marched forward down Constitution with the rest of the parade. With the Washington Monument looming behind him, a perpetually grinning Borgnine held court before the memorial honoring his generation, shouting to onlookers: "You taking all this in!?" 

His handshake as firm as a 20 year old's, Borgnine greeted me as I unapologetically gushed: "I grew up on McHale's Navy." Other tourists repeated the references to the popular 1960s sit-com about PT boat hunting for Japanese submarines in the South Pacific. The real Borgnine spent the war searching for German submarines in the North Atlantic. He probably prefers his acting career were more remembered for Marty, for which he won an academy award, or From Here to Eternity, his first major film, or Bad Day at Black Rock, in which he's memorably smacked down by Spencer Tracy.

Borgnine recently recalled that his 1964 marriage to Ethel Merman collapsed during their honeymoon, when tourists throughout the Pacific approached him with praise for McHale's Navy, while few were aware of Merman's own much longer singing and stage career. An enraged Merman left her new husband after their return to the U.S. It seems appropriate, at least on Memorial Day, that Borgnine is still best known as both a fictional and actual World War survivor.

Nurse Shain's open car was parked behind Borgnine's, beside the WWII Monument, and she received her own well-wishers. The famed August 14, 1945 photo showing a tall sailor smooching with a petite nurse in New York's Time Square encapsulated the nation's relief over Japan's surrender. Several other women have claimed to be that nurse, and many navy veterans have claimed to be the sailor in the photo, which obscures the faces of the kissers. But Time photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt seemed to have accepted Shain's claims. And she has relished her recent celebrity status, which frequently entails marshaling Memorial Day and Veterans' Day parades.

This Memorial Day parade down Constitution Avenue was pleasingly retro: classic autos, aging veterans, and high school marching bands from middle America playing patriotic airs such as The Battle Hymn, Rally Round the Flag Boys, This Is My Country, and Johnny Comes Marching Home Again. The high schools were named for Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and the town of "Liberal," Kansas. This band's banner proclaimed: "That 'Liberal' Band!" A delegation of Pearl Harbor survivors was arrayed in convertibles, as were D-Day veterans. There were also wounded veterans, widows of veterans, Purple Heart awardees, and "underage" veterans, most of them now elderly. The Sons of Confederate Veterans marched in Civil War regalia, perhaps recalling that Confederate Veterans themselves also marched in Washington, in 1917 and 1940.

Aging Republic of Vietnam veterans streamed by in the remnants of old uniforms, followed by pretty Vietnamese women, too young to remember the Vietnam War or the old republic, carrying that former nation's bright yellow flag. Republic of China veterans also marched, likewise followed by a women's auxiliary. Perhaps they felt anachronistic. Or perhaps they feel vindicated. The latest revisionist biography of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese republic's chief personality, surmises that the "man who lost China" may have actually won after all. Mao's murderous and impoverishing vision for China is now mostly history. Chiang's vision of an autocratic but capitalist China, partly influenced by China's Christian minority (Chiang was Methodist), seems to have prevailed. 

A float for the oil kingdom of Kuwait streamed by, seemingly the only direct representation of a foreign nation. Given its 1991 liberation from Saddam Hussein by the U.S. military, its presence seems appropriate. No other nations liberated by the U.S. sent a float. The flags of Allied nations from World War II are carried aloft, by U.S. personnel. All the U.S. services were represented by marching units. At the parade route end, the marchers were invited into an open-air misting shower for cooling off. The high school bands eagerly partook, instruments still in hand, but the military personnel, perhaps more conscious of their uniforms, stoically refrained.

With the Roman-temple like colossal office buildings of Federal Triangle on one side, and the museums and Mall on the other, Constitution Avenue might make a more formidable parade route than Pennsylvania Avenue. The pillared edifices, marching military units, representations by old allies, and martial music almost recalled a Roman style victory parade. But there is no ostentatious display of weaponry, and the theme is reverence and remembrance rather than bombast. At 3 p.m., all units came to a halt while taps was played, in memory of the fallen. 

This Memorial Day parade, suitably led by the irrepressible Ernest Borgnine and the kissing Nurse Shain, represented a benign, if still virile, republic and not the martial empire implied by the on-looking robed deities chiseled atop much of Federal Triangle.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.