They came from all walks of life. Bankers, lawyers, factory workers, young and old. They had hopes and dreams, lives stretched ahead of them. They had mothers, sisters, wives, and children. Yet when the world changed in an instant they steeled their resolve, put down their lives and off they went.
They traded their suits and overalls for olive drab, their leather shoes for combat boots, their fedoras and bowlers for steel helmets, and their pens for rifles. An entire generation of men gave up their former lives to march on foreign shores, and face a real threat to their country. They may have been the last generation to do so.
From the shores of Iwo Jima to the Black Forest, they fought the good fight, against evil. Not being soldiers by trade, they did their best. For many of them, these strange foreign places became their final resting place. They died looking up at unfamiliar sky, shedding tears for the homes they’d never see again, for the wives and mothers who’d never get to say goodbye.
Today, when referring to the military, we tend to throw the word “hero” around a lot. A hero isn’t a man who joined a large, professionally-trained fighting force. He’s a steelworker who, when confronted by true evil, put down the hood and blowtorch and met his end in a faraway place. These men gave their lives so that we might remain free, so that, as Abraham Lincoln might have put it, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
The Second World War was a true global conflict in every sense of the word. As such, few American families were not touched by its ravages. Many of us are fortunate enough to have known one of them: these great men who stood willing to sacrifice all they had in defense of their country.
It has been seventy years since the war ended in Europe – the better part of a century. The guns stand rusting on the beaches of Normandy, silent. The graveyards lay forgotten, white crosses row on row, the lonely graves of American men who died without names far from home. Each day, more of their generation is lost to us, taking their incredible stories with them. Collectively, we are losing the memory of a struggle that shaped this nation into what it is today. These were men who survived hardship in the Great Depression, who survived hunger and poverty, only to die in defense of the land that they loved more than life.
Now, their lives have been reduced to photographs, their struggle on our behalf immortalized in black and white. In monochrome they plant our flag, standing as the ultimate triumph of our melting pot. They are many peoples…Black and white, Irish and Italian, German, Jew, and Gentile…yet they stood united in purpose, fighting with all their hearts to defend the nation they called home. It was the nation that had welcomed their ancestors, the place that had given them opportunities no other nation on Earth could – or would – provide. In our stars and stripes, as generations had before them, they found an idea worth fighting for, an idea worth dying for. For our freedom, for our ideals, they gave their lives.
It’s a sentence that’s been sorely overused in recent years, yet here it is pertinent, indeed here it takes on a sense of urgency: when it comes to the stories of those who fought for our country in the Second World War, we must never forget.