For the last week, I’ve been mulling over how to best write about Memorial Day in the context of the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.
I grew up in Covington, Indiana, a very small town in west central Indiana. Military service runs strong in my family and in my hometown. I am the son of a Navy Vietnam Veteran and the grandson of two veterans of World War II. Many of my family members, neighbors, and community leaders served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other conflicts. Many cousins and classmates of mine served – and still serve – in the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, the Reserves, and the National Guard.
I remember Carmen Abernathy, who taught music at Covington Elementary School for many decades, talking to my classes about her husband, who served in World War II as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, flying B-17s. We learned the music, the culture, the stories, and many of the events of the Second World War. And stories such as those told by Mrs. Abernathy brought those events to life for us.
Marine Corps General David Shoup, who earned the Medal of Honor for leading his Marine regiment in an assault on Tarawa during the Second World War, grew up in my hometown. He later served as the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps. I remember the day that he died in 1983 – we held a moment of silence in my elementary school. General Shoup was buried at Arlington National Cemetary. Later, the bridge over the Wabash River in Covington was named for General Shoup.
The war – even though it occurred nearly thirty years before my birth – has always been a part of the fabric of my life. Its impact on my hometown – and on the people who lives there – was huge.
My father, a Vietnam Veteran, was active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion. He twice serves as Commander of American Legion Post 291 – housed in an old historic log cabin in Covington’s city park. As a Boy Scout in Troop 291 – sponsored by the same American Legion post, I would stop and read the plaques and study the pictures mounted on the wall.
Post 291 was named the Fulton – Banta American Legion Post. I remember an old black and white photograph of Ensign John William Banta – for whom the post was co-named. Ensign Banta was Covington’s first casualty in World War II. Fulton, whose background escapes me at the time of this writing, was Covington’s first casualty in World War I.
Something about the way that I was brought up – the combination of small town Indiana and the military service history of my family and neighbors – has always instilled in me a deep respect for the sacrifice of those of served – and those who gave their all. It may come from a deep understanding of freedom – an underlying theme that I heard growing up. From the 4th of July Fireworks, to planting flags as a young Boy Scout on the graves of hundreds of veterans in Fountain County, Indiana, that message was reinforced in my head over and over… and I also learned from the veterans and others who had lived through the Second World War that freedom came with a price. I knew that from the honored pictures of Fulton and Ensign Banta in the American Legion Post.
This weekend, we finally gave them their due with the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.
It is difficult today to realize the situation as it existed throughout the world from 1939 – 1945 – the entire world was truly at war. In Saturday’s Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize Winner Rick Atkinson wrote:
From the German invasion of Poland in 1939 until the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945, the war lasted 2,193 days and claimed an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every three seconds. In the time it takes to read this paragraph aloud, 10 people perished in World War II — an estimated total of 60 million.
It was truly a war of good versus evil. Once we were attacked by Japan, we dumped the Great Depression and partisan politics on the floor and went to war. Millions volunteered – others were drafted. Even women volunteered, as one Army Women’s Service volunteer told her granddaughter, “You have to understand how it was for everyone at the time. There was a war.”
Many from Covington volunteered and served. Ensign Banta did and was killed in action. Marvin Bodine fought at Leyte Gulf and lost an eye. Steven Abernathy served as a Browning Machine Gunner in France and Germany and was awarded the Bronze Star. His grandson writes “a stronger patriot never walked the earth.” Robert Grady served as a B-17 pilot with the 2nd Bomb Group – 15th Air Force and received the Purple Heart. Charles Macy served as a Seaman 1/C and was killed in action. And there were more that served as well – this is just a sampling.
The American war can be summarized in a paragraph: After the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States — in alliance with London, Moscow and others — resolved to first crush Germany, the strongest of the Axis partners, and to then defeat Japan. A brutal but successful seven-month campaign to occupy North Africa — and thus regain control of the Mediterranean Sea — was followed in mid-1943 by invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland. Island-hopping thrusts in the Central and Southwest Pacific brought U.S. air power within range of Japan, with devastating results. The invasion of France on June 6, 1944, and southern France two months later, squeezed Germany between the Anglo-Americans from the West and the Russian juggernaut from the East. Adolf Hitler’s suicide, on April 30, 1945, was followed eight days later by Germany’s unconditional surrender. Japan followed suit after a new American weapon, dubbed the atomic bomb, obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.
And when the war ended in 1945, more than 291,000 of them had given their lives to defend freedom around the world. My hometown lost many – as did others around the world. My current home, Taunton, Massachusetts, had nearly a thousand serving in World War II – and an untold number of dead.
These men and women set out to keep the world free. And they succeeded. And when it was over, they came home and led even more fascinating lives. And it’s a shame that it has taken us so long to build a monument worthy of their service – and sacrifice.
How does one build a monument to this generation – to this seminal event in the history of the world? Again Atkinson writes in the Washington Post:
To be an enduring success, this memorial must “respond to a very simple question that a 15-year-old high school student who comes to Washington asks the teacher 100, 200 years from now,” Friedrich St. Florian, an Austrian-born architect who won the memorial design competition, said in an interview several years ago. “So what was World War II about? How was it different from the Mexican war, or the Spanish war, or World War I?”
Part of that answer can be found in the assessment of the British historian Martin Gilbert: “Although the Second World War is now far distant, its shadows are long, its echoes loud. How else could it be with an event, lasting for nearly six years, in which courage and cruelty, hope and horror, violence and virtue, massacre and survival, were so closely intertwined?”
I hope that hundreds of years from now young Americans come to Washington, DC – take the time to gaze upon this monument – and remember what it means. And what this war meant to the world. I believe that the monument will connect them to this past.
The memorial dedicated this weekend is part of that mnemonic migration, a tribute not only to those who served, or the 291,000 U.S. battle deaths, or the 670,000 U.S. wounded, or the tens of millions who labored in factories and fields and dockyards. It is an effort to convey, to generations hence, that the war was a struggle both about territory and, as the historian Gerhard L. Weinberg has written, “about who would live and control the resources of the globe, and which peoples would vanish entirely because they were believed inferior or undesirable by the victors.”
The monument contains a field of stars commemorating those that gave their lives during the war – that section is marked with this simple saying:
HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
And nearby is another:
HERE IN THE PRESENCE OF WASHINGTON AND LINCOLN,
ONE THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY FATHER AND THE OTHER THE
NINETEENTH CENTURY PRESERVER OF OUR NATION, WE HONOR
THOSE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICANS WHO TOOK UP THE STRUGGLE
DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR AND MADE THE SACRIFICES TO
PERPETUATE THE GIFT OUR FOREFATHERS ENTRUSTED TO US:
A NATION CONCEIVED IN LIBERTY AND JUSTICE.
Inexorably, the day is approaching when not a single human alive has a personal recollection of the war, which then will slide fully into mythology, history and collective memory. Although 16.4 million Americans served during the war, fewer than 5 million remain alive; the youngest survivors now are in their late seventies, and they are passing at the rate of 1,100 a day.
I will likely live to see the last of the World War II veterans pass this world.
And we will be much the lesser when they are gone.