(I originally ran this post back on Veteran’s Day 2010. I have updated it and am running it again since the passage of time renders it more urgent.)
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 88, and in the next fifteen years 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.