Before You Go

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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 83, 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.

18 Responses to Before You Go

  • Rick Lugari says:

    Great post, Don. It is indeed very sad that we’re losing this generation of men. For many of us, WWII vets have always been there and it’s sad that their example is being lost – not to mention all the great stories!

    God bless them all.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    In my Rotary Club we have several World War II vets Rick and I will today, as I have in the past, thank them. Then I will also tell them, as I have in the past, that, no, that does not mean I’ll give them free legal services! Keeping it light is often the key so that you don’t embarrass them or make them feel awkward.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, Don. Yes, that generation of vets was very modest, even tight lipped, about their accomplishments. My late father, a European Theater veteran, won two Bronze Stars, but never told anyone — not even my mom — what exactly he did to earn them. He never wanted a fuss made over him in any way. He and his best friend were the last two WWII veterans in our hometown, and now they are both gone.

    Another story: recently I came across an obituary for a well-known local figure that mentioned his having been a Marine lieutenant commander at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Midway, AND Iwo Jima! I cannot imagine the hell he must have gone through. The mere fact that this man came home in one piece and lived to be 82 years old seems like a miracle to me. May they all rest in peace.

  • Amen. My late great uncle, Fred DiLella, was a very young sniper in the Pacific. He rarely talked about details from the war other than the humorous bits. One story horrified us as kids. He said when he’d eat from his mess kit, flies would cover his spoon as soon as he put food on it.

    “What did you do, Uncle Fred?”

    “I got used to the crunch.”

    The year before he died, he shared some of the horrors of the war with me one late evening. It was painful for him all those many years later.

  • e. says:

    Sad to say, but our beloved country has a tragic history of treating our war veterans as refuse.

    When they return, they come home to an ungrateful, hurtful world of unemployment, endless tragedy and even outright rejection by not only the people they served to protect but also by the government itself.

    How is it that the country they risked their very lives for in the war they fought could be treated with such dignity even beneath that of lepers?

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    e. what you say is a common misperception but it simply isn’t true today. Veteran’s benefits are great and veterans generally have employment rates similar to non-veterans of a similar age group and eductional level

  • e. says:

    Well, from the memoirs of those who were involved in the great wars (at least, those I vaguely recall from a long-ago high-school history teacher whose obsession it was then), it would seem that this had been the case. The reintegration of such soldiers into society upon their return from war were possessed of a common tragic tale that were the result of outright negligence by both the U.S. government and by the very people of our great nation.

    The mistreatment of Vietnam war veterans at the hands of government and the general populace would seem to be simply a continuation of that sad history.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    World War I vets had it rough. Other than a bonus to be paid in 20 years they received little assitance and they came back to a short but severe post war recession in 1919. GIs in World War II had the GI bill benefits, largely as a result of WWI vets wanting to see them treated better than they had been treated, and did very well as a group, especially due to the fact that there was a post war boom. Benefits for Vietnam Veterans were less generous than what veterans today receive, and their treatment by members of the public was often completely contemptible.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    Not to mention the Bonus Army episode of 1932, which very few people seem to be aware of these days. When the Depression hit, the World War I vets didn’t want to wait the full 20 years to get their bonus, they needed it now, and organized a massive march on D.C. to that end. However it ended with fellow soldiers, led by none other than Gen. MacArthur, dispersing them with bayonets, tear gas, etc., and several were killed.

    Hoover was still president at the time and this incident probably destroyed what little chance he would have had of being reelected. In 1936 Congress agreed to let the WWI vets claim their bonuses early. Some say the Bonus Army fiasco was a big part of the reason Congress resolved to treat WWII vets better by passing the GI Bill.

  • e. says:

    There was a speaker yesterday at an event in commemoration of Veterans Day who mentioned that 1 in 4 homeless people are actually veterans and that only 1 in 10 receive benefits.

    Hence, it would appear as though the tragic history concerning the mistreatment of this nation’s veterans continues even to this day. Very sad.

  • e. says:

    Donald:

    As you already know, I have both great admiration as well as deep respect for the wealth of historical knowledge you yourself possess, as evidenced by the numerous entries concerning historical matters you’ve personally authored on this blog.

    This is perhaps why I took what the man said (though he reiterated the same statistics at that evening’s news interview) with a grain of salt.

  • e. says:

    Donald,

    The following was just obtained, which would seem to corroborate what the spokesperson at last night’s shindig said:

    1 in 4 U.S. Homeless Are Veterans, Private Study Finds

    WASHINGTON — Veterans make up one in four homeless people in the United States, though they are only 11 percent of the general adult population, according to a report to be released Thursday.

    And homelessness is not just a problem among middle-age and elderly veterans. Younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are trickling into shelters and soup kitchens seeking services, treatment or help with finding a job.

    The Veterans Affairs Department has identified 1,500 homeless veterans from the current wars and says 400 of them have participated in its programs specifically targeting homelessness.

    The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a public education nonprofit, based the findings of its report on numbers from Veterans Affairs and the Census Bureau. 2005 data estimated that 194,254 homeless people out of 744,313 on any given night were veterans…

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,309416,00.html?sPage=fnc/politics/pentagon

  • American Knight says:

    We have to be careful what we expect. There are voluntary vets and then there are conscripts. As a nation we have a duty to take care of all of them, but we are fools to expect our current government to do so.

    In regards to voluntary vets they should be protected by contract law and if the contract isn’t attractive then don’t sign it.

    In regards to conscripts, why should we expect an entity that presses men into forced service to provide for their care after their term of what is essentially slavery is up?

    I think we need to take stock of how our government wastes money, which is why we have so little to spend on our military personnel, which, in my opinion is the most legitimate and primary role of the federal government.

    This, like most other things in our modern culture, is upside down and inside out. I think you’d be hard pressed to find an American (extreme libertarians and leftists excluded) who would not gladly fork over tax money to take care of the fine men and women who provide for our defense. But it seems providing free health care to illegal aliens and better accomondations for arrested (word removed so as not to disparage extreme practioners of a false religion) terrorists is more of a priority.

  • thommacintyre says:

    Hi!
    As a memeber of the 101st in the 1980s I had the chance to meet some of my counterparts form WW II at a 40th anniversary D-Day dinner where we, the current troops, were the honor guard. What a GREAT bunch! Well, years later I had a miracle happen revolving around a Rosary. I wrote it up and here is the link:
    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2411430/a_true_according_to_hoyle_recovery.html?cat=37

    Thank you, each and every veteran ESPECIALLY the ones from WW II still around…

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