Before They Go

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And there’s one thing you’ll be able to say when you get home. When you’re sitting around your fireside, with your brat on your knee, and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you won’t have to say you shoveled s–t in Louisiana.

                       General George S. Patton


Hattip to Instapundit.  People at Reagan National cheering World War II vets on an Honor Flight to Washington DC to see the World War II memorials.  Here is a post from 2009 that I wrote regarding the urgent necessity to talk to our World War II veterans now.

Time is doing what the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese could not do:  vanquishing our World War II generation.  The youngest American veteran of that conflict would now be 86, and in the next two decades or so they will all be in eternity.  Time now to express our heartfelt gratitude for what they accomplished for the country.  They have been called the greatest generation.  I am sure that most of them would reject that title, maybe putting in a vote for the generation that won the American Revolution or the generation that fought the Civil War.  Modesty has been a hallmark of their generation.  When I was growing up in the Sixties, most of them were relatively young men in their late thirties or forties.  If you asked them about the war they would talk about it but they would rarely bring it up.  They took their service for granted as a part of their lives and nothing special.   So those of us who knew them often took it for granted too.  Uncle Chuck, he works at the Cereal Mills, and, oh yeah, he fought in the Pacific as a Marine.  Uncle Bill, he has a great sense of humor and I think he was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered to MacArthur.  When they talked about the war it was usually some humorous anecdote, often with some self-deprecating point.  They’d talk about some of the sad stuff too, but you could tell that a lot of that was pretty painful for them, so you didn’t press them.  They were just husbands and fathers, uncles and cousins.  The fact that the janitor at the school won a silver star on Saipan, or  the mayor of the town still walked with a limp from being shot on D-Day, was just a normal part of life, like going to school or delivering papers.

However, what they did should not be taken for granted.  Together with our allies they fought and won a war that may justly be called a crusade against evil.  Nazi Germany and their death camps need no elaboration.  Less well known is that the forces of Imperial Japan slaughtered some 20,000,000 civilians in their attempt to create their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.  The World would have been a much darker place but for the generation of Americans that fought and won World War II.  I will rely upon the words of Sir Winston Churchill to state what American entry into the War meant:

“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war — the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand’s breadth; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled or mutilated, safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force. The British Empire, the Soviet Union, and now the United States, bound together with every scrap of their life and strength, were, according to my lights, twice or even thrice the force of their antagonists. No doubt it would take a long time. I expected terrible forfeits in the East; but all this would be merely a passing phase. United we could subdue everybody else in the world. Many disasters, immeasurable cost and tribulation lay ahead, but there was no more doubt about the end.

Silly people — and there were many, not only in enemy countries — might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before — that the United States is like “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

They saved our World, the young men who went off to fight, and the young women who served as nurses and in auxiliary units and who “womaned” the factories that produced seas of war material that sank the Axis.  If you are fortunate to still have a World War II generation member in your family thank them.  You don’t have to be maudlin.  When I have done it I have went about it in a humorous fashion, but in whatever manner it is done, it needs to be done before they all leave us.  Also, get their stories so that future generations may remember them.  Above all, let us remember the approximately 420,000 Americans who had their lives taken away in that conflict.  As the inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Division at Kohima says, “When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”.  We must never forget their sacrifice.


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  1. Today, in the car at a stop sign, I saw a tag sale. On an easel was a yellowed newspaper with, at least, 5″ block letters reporting Hitler Dead. Those belongings must have been from someone that is under what you said about what “Time is doing”.

    ” The youngest American veteran of that conflict would now be 86, and in the next two decades or so they will all be in eternity. Time now to express our heartfelt gratitude for what they accomplished for the country. ”

    Thanks for the reminder – age 86. I just spoke with my mother about your post and the thankfulness you expressed. She is sitting nearby reminiscing still about those years. She will be 88 in August and has clarity and spirit. Her experience was waiting to become 18 in 1942 to work at the Armory, where she was a cutter grinder ($54/week) after 3 months training ($27/week).

    She spoke of some of the women who worked piecework on receivers for guns where there was a lot of oil, that they wore rubber aprons, boots, and kerchiefs on their hair – some who deburred barrels with rags tied around their fingers to prevent slivers. She remembers appreciating her desk, but being glared at when they walked by on the way to the Officer’s office.

    My grandfather walked to meet her for the walk home across the bridge. She gave my grandmother her pay envelopes. They read letters from my uncle who was overseas in the Air Force. Much more to tell while working until 1945.

    She was called back in 1950 during Korean for a couple of years and worked the nightshift when my father could be home for my brother and me.

    Anyway, I sorely miss family dinners and events and ‘conversations’ with people of that age and sense and humor.

  2. My great Uncle Mike was a soldier in WWII. Like so many other young American men, he entered the Army, was stationed in England, fought on the beaches at Normandy and survived the Battle of the Bulge. Uncle Mike sent home German money, German Army medals and many other things. I remember my dad telling me of the things he had seen his Uncle Mike send home. Uncle Mike, a first generation American – my great grandfather fled partitioned Poland – came home, got married and had six kids.

    When I was two, my dad got a job in Cleveland. I did not grow up around my parents’ families, and what I know came to me secondhand. Uncle Mike died of a heart attack in 1981. I never had the opportunity to ask him anything.

    If you know someone who was in WWII, please talk to him or her. If you know someone who remembers the war years, talk to him or her. Personal experiences do a much better job than the documentaries on Military Channel and Military History, which, it is worth noting, is better than nothing at all.

  3. “Greet them ever with grateful hearts.”

    The last of my great uncles who served in WWII has passed away.

    I was lucky to have spent many years with them.

    When they were young, they didn’t talk much. As the years wore on, they’d give dribs and drabs.

    Uncle John (RIP) survived D-Day Landing with the First. He had sent home a nazi belt that must have been worn by a kid. Only thing (I remember) he ever said was he and his buddies were disappointed they didn’t get into Berlin because they had lost so many.

    Uncle Tom (RIP) drove and was a gunner in tanks for Patton in North Africa and Sicily and was in the Italy fight up to the Po Valley. I knew him the best. He saw a lot of burned tanks and tankers. The shells would pretty much come right through. He saw his platoon shavetail get “it” by a German shell in his fox hole. He didn’t talk much. He’d give little bits here and there, more later in life.

    One thing in common: these men were the most lovely and wonderful tough men you can imagine. It was a sight to see them with little children.

    Envy is a vice. I confess I envy each and every one of them. They are/were better men than I am.

  4. After thanking them start planning a trip to DC to give them a great gift, one more visit to the relatively new WWII memorial. (2004)
    My wife and I escorted twenty six WWII vets and spouses to DC in 2010 for Memorial Day weekend.
    Nothing can compare to the energy and emotion of this trip.
    Brisbane, Hawaii, Auckland….that was joyous however the Bus trip to DC with these heroes was the greatest trip we’ve ever taken.
    God Bless Our Vets.

  5. My Uncle Ed’s Navy service in the Pacific was a treasure trove of stories for me. He didn’t talk about the serious side of things. He did survive, after all. He limited his tales to the humorous. Like the time an officer caught him with a red cross painted on his helmet, an obvious attempt to ward off machine gun fire from Japanese aircraft. He was told to “get that the heck off there-pronto”. He complied, and replaced it with a bulls eye. Again, the time at home on leave, he entered a bus using crutches. A civilian quickly rose up and gave him his seat. After my uncle settled in, the civilian asked, where did it happen? My uncle, who probably never told a lie, promptly answered, “Slipped on the ice, duck hunting”. Uncle Ed’s gone a dozen years. I miss him and look forward to seeing him again at the Resurrection. May God bless all the generous souls who put everything on the line for their country, especially those who lost everything of this world thereby. May their sacrifice not have been in vain. May God save and bless our beloved country, especially today when she is so much at risk. Amen.

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