Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day -- A Child's Remembrance of Wars Past.


Verne Strickland / November 11, 2013

I'm 76 years of age now. But at the other end of my life -- my boyhood -- I was so fresh and seeking. I want to talk about the war that many of us think most about on Veterans Day -- the Second World War, which gave us 'The Greatest Generation'.

There were other 'Greatest Generations', I think, where our Armed Forces pitted their lives against the enemy for the sake of freedom. From Korea to the Gulf to Viet Nam to hell and back. From Pearl Harbor to a final payback which left HIroshima and Nagasaki in flaming ruins. In many ways, in every theater, it was all the same for those in uniform. Same mission, different enemies, but all with the same death grudge against America.

I was four years old when World War II began, and eight when it ended. Of course, I have no recollection of the earliest years. But later, as the impact of the war grew more intense on the battlefields, and the homefront, I began to realize how serious this massive battle was.

We rationed food, tires, metal. In the little country village where I was raised, mule-drawn wagons brought the farm people to town. Those who could afford cars often drove on tire rims because no rubber was available. That went to the war effort. So did most of the fuel. Many of the roads were dirt, even the 'streets' in the town were not paved. The rims cut grooves in the roadway, which was mostly clay, and made a distinctive gritty sound as they carved their way slowly toward town. That was the way it was.

From the country crossroads to the cities across America the men went to war. Most were young, but fathers went too. And daughters, mothers, sisters. They were our neighbors. Many just never appeared again. That's how a boy saw it. There were tears, widows in black, and gold stars in the windows. It was a sad, tense time.

A popular, handsome boy next door to us was in the Navy. He was captured by the Germans somehow, and died a prisoner of war. They said he was machine-gunned on a cattle car with other Americans being transported from one camp to another. I have since seen photos of those freight trains with sinister helmeted Nazi guards atop the boxcars, ready to kill anyone who tried to escape. Harold apparently died that way. His mother back in North Carolina was brave, but she was never the same again.

Another family had three sons and a daughter in the war. I seem to recall that all fought in Europe. There were lots of pictures of them throughout the big house where the family lived. They gave us war souvenirs -- Nazi arm-band swastikas, flags, and cartridge belts.

One of the boys survived the Battle of the Bulge. He drank away the memories and became an alcoholic. A gentle guy. Everyone liked him and tried to help him. The other two boys appeared to recover from their war experience. But I know now, as an adult, that the memories are seared into their souls and merely hidden away.

Another of their sons became a minister. I attended his funeral not many years back. It was held in the lovely little Episcopal church he attended as a youth, as I did. The community turned out in force. We had been quite proud of him. 

Their daughter was tall, slim and dark-haired -- the town's sweetheart. She was a WAVE, and a real beauty in her crisp Navy uniform with the smart white cap. She became a teacher after returning from overseas. I was in her class. Truly a lucky boy.

This was a truly wonderful American family, which sent all of their children into war. It was a gesture many made during that time. I understand much more about that now than I did in the past. We sacrificed for America's freedom. The price for some was daunting.

The war came to me through the big floor radio in our living room. I would often switch over to the short-wave transmissions in Morse code. The commentators sounded like they were halfway around the world. And they were. The way the radio signal drifted and squealed made the newscasts sound mysterious and foreign. I hung on every word.

But the look of the war was conveyed by stunning photos in "Life" magazine. My dad always subscribed to it, and it was where my real impressions of the war came from.

The littered, smoking, alien battlefields, the fierce man-to-man combat, the death and carnage that enveloped friend and foe, the jungle, roaring flame-throwers, kamikaze Japanese bayonet charges, the Bataan Death March. Across Europe, the cruel, hardened Nazis, Panzers, death camps of Hitler's 'final solution, the air war where American pilots finally dominated, the great wars at sea where huge carriers and battle wagons slugged it out, and submarines played deadly cat-and-mouse games deep beneath the surface.

I say that I lived it, experienced it. I didn't. At times I wished I had. But there is no way to know how good a soldier I would have been. Even then I loved our country, loved our brave GIs and all Americans in the sprawling war effort. I knew it was for keeps.

Finally, when I was only eight years old, our mother called to me and my two brothers and brought us into our living room. She was in tears. She held us all close for a minute or more. We were confused and fearful. Finally she raised her head and said, "Thank God, boys. The war is over."

It was a moment I'll never forget. We still had a lot of work to do in the Pacific. So the suspense and news dispatches from the front continued. But we knew the end was in sight. America would be victorious. We would triumph over evil -- one Nation under God.

This is what I remember and cherish on this Veterans Day 2013.