The thing about the war was, after it was over you could be talking to someone who had had fantastic experiences and you’d never find out about it. Or maybe you would in the guy’s obituary. We heard it about some movie stars and sports stars, but the average man you’d run into in the late 1940s to even today, although less and less today, might have done something heroic that he never talked about.
You’d hear the funny stories. “We were getting ready to assault the island and we couldn’t light up cigarettes, so I borrowed some chewing tobacco. When the big guns went off I swallowed the whole thing.“
It’s only in the last couple of years, as they realize they’re fading away, that the survivors of the really bad events of World War II have agreed to tell their stories in TV documentaries. For many of them it’s their last chance to eulogize friends killed 70 years ago. So now we’re hearing, not for the first time but in the most personal way, what Omaha Beach was like and how it felt to fly bombing raids into Germany. Even some from the other side; picking off American ships silhouetted against Atlantic City’s lights in the early days, before German submarines became death traps.
There have been several wars since that one. The great thing is, every generation gets to have its own war. By rights mine should be Korea, and I’m classified as being in that “era,” but I was sent to defend democracy in a different part of Asia.The biggest danger where I was stationed was the local snakes. So as wars go, WWII was the one that left an impression on me when I was impressionable.
In the years since, I’ve found that time not only blurs memories, it changes outlooks. There were people born after the war who condemned the U.S. for using the atomic bomb. But the Japanese had put up fanatical defenses for every little island outpost in the Pacific, so invading their home island was going to be a bloodbath, and The Bomb avoided that. It was a good thing.
You had to be there…