- Published on Tuesday, 22 May 2012 22:05
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When I was growing up almost all of our Dads and indeed, some of our moms, were World War II veterans. Sure there were a few particularly young dads who missed the war, and a few more, who for various reasons didn’t serve in uniform, but without fail, the history and lore of the Second World War was a dominant part of the upbringing of my generation.
Whether it was stories from one of my Dad’s dear friends about flying B-17’s over Germany, or my father’s stories of the Pacific War, it was all a background to my growing up. And the same was true for millions of others in my generation.
But, then, once I had grown up, I started to notice something. The World War II vets that I had worked with in my first years in the work force began to retire. And, of course the saddest part was that my father’s friends began to pass on, and before long, he joined them as well. From my perspective, it was beginning to dawn on me that the legacy I had grown up with was starting to fade.
Indeed, for a number of years after my father died I continued to get a quarterly copy of the newsletter from his ship’s veteran’s association. It was a small ship, but one that had a motivated group of alumni and their newsletter was always a joy to read. Whether it was recollections of their adventures with Pacific Island natives, buddies lost in combat, or the latest grandchild or death notice, it was a reminder that the legacy of this era was still alive and well. But, I have to say, it’s been over two years since I saw the last newsletter.
Now, lest you think I am making this too depressing, that’s not my intent. But, make no mistake, as their gait slows and their eyes dim, the holders of this legacy - the ones who helped shape our world and our future - are fading into history.
And maybe that’s the point. America’s wars, whether it was the Revolution, the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, or the Vietnam War, really stay in our minds because of the memories and the shared experiences of those who were a part of it. Long after the war is done, the legacy continues. The men and women who fought the war shape our lives, our politics and our views of history. But even that legacy, after awhile, begins to fade, and it’s that journey into the twilight that sometimes seems the saddest of all.
I remember listening to a broadcast over the American Forces Network back in 1996 of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun. This was one of the costliest battles in the history of war, and every year since the battle took place, the French military and the veterans of the battle, at first young, and then in subsequent years, very old men, would gather to remember. And while the French Army had expected a couple of the old vets to show up at the ceremony, they didn’t. One had died and the other was too ill to attend. It was left to a French Colonel to say with great dignity, “…that we used to meet to honor them, now we meet to honor their memory.”
Alas, the legacy of the Great War, as my Great Uncle used to call it, of 1914-1918 has entirely passed from the scene. In 2007 the British Government announced that the last of the first expeditionary force to France, “the Old Contemptibles,” as they were called, had died. Our own, last World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died last year at 110.
But, legacies such as this, and the importance of these legacies, are not restricted to this century. When the Civil War began, there was quite a bit of notice given to the passing of another legacy, that of the last of the revolutionary war veterans. While General Washington’s army was decisively small, and life spans were relatively short in the early 19th century, there were still several revolutionary war veterans alive when the Civil War began. The ironies and the comparisons that were drawn in the press, even back then, were considerable.
However, the American Civil War was really the first war where large numbers of veterans survived for decades after the conflict. The Union Army’s most influential veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, at its peak in 1890, had 400,000 members. These veterans survived well into the 20th century, with the last of them, or at least by the best estimate, dying in the early 1950’s. They left an indelible mark on society, and their experiences had helped shape the thinking and future of several generations of Americans.
There is nothing too remarkable in this passing of a legacy whether it’s the Civil War or World War II. It’s a part of the progression of life, but I am also convinced that it’s a legacy, particularly in our own time, we need to recognize. Sometimes, it seems as if the legacy and the recollections will be around forever. That somehow, the recollections, the impressions and the ideals will survive on their own. But that’s not the way things work. The veterans of these great conflicts are mortal, and while we still have the time, we should make sure that their legacy, their experiences, ideals and accomplishments are something we to protect and cherish.