My father, of blessed memory, spent the better part of three years serving
with the 8th Air Force in England during World War II, and later in Germany
during the occupation. My mother spent this same period working in New York City's
Department of Health.
Yet the stories that she told of life during World War II were far more vivid
than those of my father. Among the best was the tale of how she had traveled
across the country via train no mean feat during wartime to meet my dad
for a brief visit in Indianapolis before he was shipped overseas.
Even better was the dramatic recollection of how she had wept uncontrollably
as she saw the pictures of the first troops hitting the beaches of France on
the cover of the daily papers after D-Day. The recollection of pain and grief
of watching from afar as the fate of a loved one and so many other Americans
remained unknown can still bring tears to her eyes.
The story, which was often told and retold in our home, spoke of my mother's
near hysteria and how her normally stern boss had reacted with sympathy,
comforting her the promise that she would be granted a vacation the moment my
father came home. That memory was inevitably followed by another retelling of the
happy day when he did return and surprised her by showing up at my
grandparents' apartment sooner than expected after their long separation.
DOING THEIR JOB
When asked what he had done that day, my father had no colorful tales. For
him and for most veterans, there was no Shakespearean flourish about a "Band of
Brothers" or those abed in America envying their part in the great crusade for
He would merely say that he and his fellow crewmen spent that time working
virtually nonstop for more than a week as they strove to keep the planes in
their P-51 fighter-bomber squadron aloft as they supported the landing and
battered the counterattacking Nazis.
As an afterthought, he would sometimes add that he fell ill as a result of
exhaustion and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from pneumonia and that
some SOB in the Army Air Corps hospital stole his wedding ring while he was
He had done a job and gotten sick. He then went back to work doing his job.
Eventually, he got to go home. End of story.
Like most of what we now call "The Greatest Generation," Dad took the
experience in stride. It had been, for him and most of the millions like him, the
great adventure of his life. But he didn't think of it as heroic. And like a lot
of veterans I've met, he had little nostalgia for the war, and even less
patience for those who reveled in their memories. He had been a small part of
something monumental and was proud, but primarily, it had been an interruption of
As far as he was concerned, the big story was more personal: how a boy like
him, who had been raised in an orphanage, could grow up to lead a productive
life, marry the woman he loved, own a home, and see his children go off to
college and on to professional careers. In what was perhaps his only flight into
rhetorical fancy, he would sometimes say, in his later years, that he had lived
the "American dream."
And that, for those seeking to understand the dwindling band of veterans that
America is honoring on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, is what that generation
was all about.
The opening of the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., has set off a
sea of bubbling rhetoric of praise for the veterans. But the gap between the
heroism of the veterans and the culture of the baby-boomers who followed
isn't often articulated, but has to be on the tip of everyone's tongue.
I can't help but wonder what kids today will make of all this fuss since for
most of them, D-Day is as remote as Gettysburg. Surveys of students have shown
that most have trouble identifying who America's allies and foes were, and
have little notion of the events, let alone the chronology, of the war.
Unlike the popular culture of today, which regards anything that happened the
day before yesterday as ancient history, the America that I grew up in during
the early 1960s was pretty much obsessed with World War II. Those few
television shows that weren't about cowboys in the Old West were about soldiers,
sailors or airmen not just the dramas like "Combat" but also comedies such as
As the times changed, heroes turned to anti-heroes, and the spirit of
patriotism and glorification of the American military altered radically. The politics
and the foreign policy of the 1950s and '60s was about trying to avoid a
repetition of the appeasement of totalitarian governments that had led to World
War II, while a subsequent generation worried a lot more about not getting into
another Vietnam. As the reaction to the ups and downs of the American campaign
in Iraq has shown, it isn't clear whether the pendulum has swung back.
STICK TO THE POINT
But as much as some pundits would love to tie up the nostalgia for the 1940s
with a prowar stance or to contrast the generally united American people of
that time with our current political divisions, it would be a mistake to get too
caught up in this rhetorical box. Every generation has its own tests. If our
lot is easier than that of our fathers, it's not because we are weak. It is
precisely because my father's generation was strong enough to do what had to be
done that the world they created was passed down to us.
And let's not forget that despite the relative ease and comfort of
contemporary lives in this country, the America of 2004 has new tests to pass.
After all, despite all the blackouts of the 1940s, the New York my mother
lived in during the war was never attacked by the enemies of freedom. Those who
live there now cannot say the same.
With each advancing anniversary associated with the war, the number of
veterans around to tell us to stop making speeches and stick to the business of
making a better America and ensuring its safety is getting fewer and fewer.
Too many of them, like my father, are gone now, like the hundreds of
thousands who fell on the battlefield and did not get to experience the American dream
they sacrificed to preserve. May all of their memories be for a blessing. And
may we and those who follow us be worthy of their legacy.