In Loving Memory
My dad died May 25, 1999. By now, 13 years later, most of his fellow surviving WWII veterans have had the volley fired over their coffins. It seems a fitting time to recall the men of that generation, as they really were.
In my experience, they were not a romantic group, given to sentimentalizing about their experiences of war. In fact, I don't recall many of them talking much about the war or combat at all. In affect, they were more Bogart than John Wayne; given more to worldly observations delivered out of the side of the mouth than bravado. (My dad knew which Hollywood actors had gone to war, who hadn't, and he held grudges against the shirkers.) To take a real world character, Bob Dole reminds me a lot of my dad, and the veterans I grew up around.
Another thing I remember, most of them had pretty short fuses. They didn't put up with any guff, from their own kids or anyone else's. You learned to walk and talk respectfully around them, well into your late teens. We (at least boys born in the 40s) knew which ones had actually been in combat and in which service and theatre. Marines who'd fought in the Pacific you particularly didn't want to get crosswise with, even by the time I started drinking legally in bars.
I worked for a year during college as a janitor with a guy named Dom, a short wiry Italian, who had served in the Pacific. It was hard to understand him, because he'd been shot in the jaw on his third island landing; reconstructive surgery after WWII was nowhere near the art we've come to expect now, and he was left to a life of jobs not requiring much in the way of communication skills. He didn't want to talk about fighting on the first 2 islands or how he got his wound; but he was adamant (after 25 years) that if he ever ran into his sergeant on the street he wouldn't hesitate to try to kill him.
My dad, and most of the other vets I knew could swear a blue streak when mad or on hitting a thumb with the hammer; but I don't recall ever hearing an F-bomb. (That came into common parlance when guys my age got back from Viet Nam). Not all were as regular a church-goer as dad (a devout Catholic), but they were a generation of men that prided themselves on being well-mannered in public. Nixon's foul mouth revealed in the Watergate tapes was the exception; even the WWII era foremen I worked for on construction sites in the late 60s didn't curse that routinely on the job. But I do remember learning my first dirty song from the kid across the street, whose dad had served in the European theatre: "Hitler has only one left ball..."
My dad was listening to the radio on Sunday December 7, 1941, when they interrupted the music to announce the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor; the song was the Ink Spots' "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." He started his service in 1942 in New Caledonia, helping to create the Army in the South Pacific. After contracting yellow fever, he finished the war in California as a master sergeant at a POW camp, denazifying German soldiers.
I remember him, red poppy in lapel, taking us to Memorial Day parades in the 50s, which included a sizable number of older guys in WWI helmets and uniforms still able to march proudly. Now, I can't imagine that there are many of the WWII veterans able to march, even if there were a parade in my old home town.
Tom Brokaw has called them the "Greatest Generation." It's not the kind of term they would self-apply. I increasingly miss that generation's quiet contempt for self-promotion, almost as much as their toughness and dignity. They were men.