Living History – Veterans’ Day Edition
Recently, I had the privilege of spending an evening with two World War II vets – ‘General R,’ age 89, and another gentleman, 91 spry years old, who shared their memories of the war with their companions. General R wanted to join the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor, but he was turned down due to a lack of the requisite two years of college education. He turned to the Canadian Royal Air Force, who were more than happy to have him. After training on a cloth-winged biplane, he found himself in the cockpit of an RAF Hawker Hurricane. In 1943, after obtaining a release from the RAF, Gen. R joined the Army Air Force, which was less concerned then with college than with combat experience. Back in Great Britain, he flew many more missions until being shot down in late 1944, which provided an opportunity for him to be a guest of the Germans until the end of the war and his release.
Returning several years afterward to service, this time with the Air National Guard, he serve ed until the mid-1970s, retiring just as F-15s were being added to the inventory. From biplanes to jet fighters….
The other gent, a natural storyteller and a ‘live wire’ despite his years, spent the war with the Naval Armed Guard (not the Merchant Marine, as he quickly corrected me). He left ‘the Triple C’ (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp where he was living and working to enlist as soon as the news of Pearl Harbor reached his camp. These sailors manned armed merchant ships, and my dinner companion spent his time in the North Atlantic, in a contest with U-boats to get supplies through to the front, and to the English people who sacrificed so much during the war. The contest didn’t always end successfully, as my companion spoke of spending the night on an iceberg after his ship was torpedoed and sunk. (They did calisthenics to stay warm until a rescue ship could come to their aid.) The U-boat threat was so real to them that they slept on deck, in life jackets, on their homeward voyage after V-E day, just in case a young U-boat captain wanted to get in one last, post-surrender kill before returning home.
He closed by relating some of his post-war adventures, and then added that he wished he were 21 years old so that he could do it all over again.
It was a nice way to spend an October evening, especially as I’d said good-bye for the winter to herb and Gladys, our snowbird neighbors, who’d just departed for Florida. (Herb served in the Pacific Theater and remained spry enough to do yard work this summer, though he stopped hand-mowing his lawn a couple of years ago.)
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to hear more memories retold, as ‘Chief M,’ a retired warrant officer, related to us, at a unit alumni dinner, his experiences in Europe as an infantryman, and how he finished the war in the Philippines, as his unit was one of several shipped across the globe after V-E Day for Pacific service and potential use in an invasion of Japan’s home islands.
My own service never involved anything as dangerous or exciting as what these combat veterans experienced. Too young for Vietnam, I was nearing the end of my service by the time we entered the post 9/11 era and my turn never came to see overseas war service. However, while the ‘hot wars’ passed me by, I did serve in Germany during the ‘Cold War,’ and once visited its crucible, Berlin, for urban warfare training in 1982 while a member of the 3rd Infantry Division. Berlin was divided then, before the Berlin Wall came down, and the West was free, while the East was under Communist rule. However, the treaties signed by the World War II Allies included visitation rights for each of the four signatory powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France). Those treaty rights were our passport to a day-trip to East Berlin. That day, spent amidst the dreary ruins of a metropolis only partially rebuilt, dreary even on its signature street, Unter Den Linden, once the German capital’s showcase, and the 24 crosses we counted that were erected in on the western side of the barrier zone to mark where would-be escapees were gunned down by East German guards within sight of the freedom that they were willing toy risk their lives to obtain, made for a more powerful education than anything written in a book could’ve imparted.
What follows are the pictures I took during that visit in the spring of 1982.
This space, and my time, are not enough to recall all the other stories, of elder relatives who served in Korea and Vietnam, and in earlier wars going back to our country’s founding, or even my maternal Grandmother’s stories about growing up in the encampment of the 42nd Highlanders, (‘The Black Watch’), and on and on. If you have the opportunity to sit next to one of those who swerved, be sure to ask about their stories, because they will pass away with their bearers and will be lost to us someday if not retold and passed down to others. Their memories are truly ‘living history’ and their retelling our texts for understanding what it was like, in each of the places they went, when they experienced military service – and sometimes war – at the human, personal scale.
Like my dinner companion on that October evening, I wish I was 21 again, so that I could do it all over.