Thursday, June 5, 2014

Seventy years ago today

There's so few of them left.

My father wasn't old enough to serve even with Grandpa's permission until after October 1945; by a fluke, he was still awarded the World War II Victory Medal (Harry S Truman, for reasons I don't know, didn't declare an official end of hostilities until 31 December 1946). However, my granduncle, Lt. Joseph P. Cronin, served with the 36th Infantry (Arrowhead) Division when the Seventh Army invaded southern France 15 August 1944; he was killed outside of Montélimar nine days later. And a fellow Knight of my council served as a platoon sergeant in the 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division in the South Pacific; I don't know how, because he doesn't talk about it, but he was awarded the Bronze Star. And I once lived by a man who'd flown B-24s — where and with which Air Force, I'll never know.

The real heroes usually don't talk about it. When they're with friends from their old units, they swap funny memories. And they're the first to deny that they're heroes. Almost to a man, they say: "The real heroes never left."

In a way, those who walk among us still never completely left. They're still there, hiding behind the iron ties and "Rommel's asparagus" on the Omaha beachhead — swinging the 'chute canopy to avoid the fire at Sainte-Mère-Église — wrestling heavy control columns as flak bursts outside the Plexiglas canopy of the cockpit — diving to escape a Mitsubishi "Zero" or a Messerschmitt Me-109 — watching in horror as a kamikaze deliberately plows his aircraft into a destroyer — digging and fighting and sleeping and marching endlessly through mud, snow, rain or desert or jungle, always wanting to be home (or anyplace else where Jerry or Tojo wasn't trying to do you in).

And, for a select few, the ghastly revelation as their unit stumbled upon death camp after death camp, populated by living skeletons and piled with corpses of those the Third Reich had declared lebensunwerten Leben — "life unworthy of life". The European Holocaust eclipsed the senseless slaughter of Chinese civilians by the Japanese military government. Oh, and the dread of the future implicit in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No side came out completely clean; just ask the residents of Dresden and Cologne.

And yet, the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and coast guards gave so much more than blood, sweat and fury. They staked their futures on the needs of the present. So many lost. But so many came back dedicated to peace, to human rights, to international cooperation. They learned that isolationists could shut America in, but they couldn't shut the world out. Their children would take the credit, but the real changes began with them: they cast the votes and filled the offices which would begin to make civil rights a reality.

Yes, they were all heroes. In many ways. And they're going the way of all flesh when we need such heroes the most.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for serving your country.