Today is the 69th anniversary of the D Day invasion of France. By coincidence, it also is my regular day to volunteer at the local military museum, a quiet place where my duties don’t involve a great deal of effort beyond just being there so it is open.
The museum isn’t that old – less than 10 years – yet it is an important community asset that keeps fresh memories of our small Western Nebraska town’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany, and more. Wars from the Revolutionary War through current wars are featured in displays.
In WWII, this town had an air base where paratroopers and glider troops involved in that event 69 years ago trained. These were the people who lead the invasion, were there first behind enemy lines. The amazing part is some of them still wander in on my Thursdays to talk about that service or their part in that war. Not many, though, or that often. They are old now, most of their comrades in arms gone. I choose to remember that.
I’d hoped to write something profound about that generation and that military operation, my way to keep alive just how important June 6th is in history. Fact is, though I am a Vietnam Era veteran (a distinction that means I served during that war, but not in the war itself), I am not someone who wallows in military glory and American involvement in foreign conflicts. Yet I choose to remember why today is important in history.
Talking with the generation that fought or lived through WWII as a civilian, a different picture comes through. Many won’t talk about it because it was brutal and they saw, perhaps did things that haunted them for seven decades later. I choose to remember that.
It wasn’t glorious. It was sad, brutal, not spoken of survival against the odds. It wasn’t a given America and the Allies would win at first. I choose to remember that.
It traumatized those who received the telegrams that told of sons, husbands, or fathers who were never to come home again, many times buried in places so far away family would never even see the graves. Sometimes there wasn’t even enough left to identify and bury. I choose to remember that.
It was a flag neatly folded into a triangle and presented by an honor guard at those funerals where a body, maybe just some broken-up parts of human flesh did come home. I choose to remember that.
It was a loved one missing in combat who, hope against hope, might be in a POW camp where the enemy treated that son, husband, or father “according to the Geneva Convention”, not brutally, as we would learn, in places like Bataan. I choose to remember that.
It was my father, Chief of Police of this small town, with one police car that was unusable because of lack of a repair door, who didn’t get a door until he wrote Henry Ford telling him about the situation! The local Ford dealer was unable to get the door because of wartime restrictions. I choose to remember that.
It was housewives trying to find milk for their children, sugar, shoes, any number of rationed items. Victory Gardens weren’t totally patriotic endeavors: They often were the primary source of fresh vegetables and canned produce during and for a short time after the war. There is a DVD available for sale at the museum that shows the opening day of the Army Airbase here. Of all the people in the video, only one elderly woman looked even a little heavy. Even she didn’t look fat! It wasn’t a concentration camp thinness to the people, but it definitely was a crowd of hundreds, thousands that didn’t over eat. I choose to remember that.
It was people who worked together for a cause even though they weren’t of the same political party or beliefs. Haven’t seen that for a few years in America, eh?! At least not in government.
Many of my friends are the children of GIs who trained here, met local girls, fell in love, and married them. Many of their fathers are honored in the museum through family donated materials related to their military service. One of my classmate’s fathers was an Army medic who was a paratrooper qualified in grenade, machine gun, rifle, pistol, bazooka, hand-to-hand combat usage. Whew! How can you not remember that?!
Though many people served in WWII as volunteers, it was a military based on citizen soldiers, i.e. the draft. Up through “my” war, the Vietnam War, there was a military draft in the USA.
In just wars, wars for national survival like WWII, the draft assured that there was a sort of equality among classes of people, a theoretical one at least. One benefit of the citizen soldier-based military in WWII was that many children of important people also served in combat. Roosevelt had a son in combat; George Bush was a combat pilot who was shot down and survived an ordeal to get back to friendly lines; John Kennedy lost his older brother in war; and he himself was a survivor of a military action where a Japanese ship sliced his PT boat in half. I choose to remember that.
I find the new wars suspicious enterprises. Maybe I’ll get on my soapbox some day about those, but today, I choose to remember the incredible people who stormed those beaches of Normandy, all Allied troops, not just American. I choose to remember the unquestionable courage of those who glided in behind enemy lines or hung suspended in the air from parachutes while Germans picked them off as they floated to ground. I choose to remember that.
Today I choose to remember the civilian sacrifices of those with family in those invasion troops, of the fear of failure in the uncertainty of success.
Today I choose to remember the leadership of men like Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, of Eisenhower and his staff of frontline commanders from many nations.
Today I choose to remember Kenny, who was captured and spent time in a German POW camp till the end of the war. He was the only son, the sole surviving child of my grandmother’s best friend.
Today I choose to remember Ray, who was a bomber pilot who served in Europe, but some days stops by the museum now with his wife for a visit and a chat.
Today I choose to remember all the people whose names and stories appear in the two volume scrapbook of the lady who carefully snipped all mentions from the local paper at the time of men and women serving in the military- who was drafted, who volunteered, who did what and survived or not, when, where, but never why. “Why” was well understood by all.
Today I choose to remember my mother, who, after I suggested watching a video of a heart-warming WWII film (“Life is Beautiful”, which makes me cry just to think of the story and how it ends), told me she didn’t want to watch another video about WWII even if less emotional because, “I lived it, and don’t want to live it again.” It hadn’t occurred to me that the war might traumatize civilians so profoundly. It was an important epiphany for me because “my” war divided society rather than united it into a great cause for which each member of the society shared the price. I remember that vividly.
Today won’t be an ordinary afternoon at the museum. I choose to remember that.