We are in danger of losing our memory of World War II. What may arguably have been the single greatest moment in US (and world) history is on the brink of losing its hold on our American psyche and soul. We seem to be losing the unique greatness of who we were and how we got there- the living (yet admittedly flawed) embodiment of our ideals and who we believed ourselves to be. We are forgetting what we fought for- and against.
This is not the first time this has
happened in our history. After a generation or two, many great acts of
history flow into myth and their raw facts are lost. The following
generations then lose the real-life examples of what was involved. It is
then that, having forgotten history, we are condemned to repeat it. In
the early 20th Century the Civil War was lost as those who opposed it
began to reassert control in the South, the KKK was established, and
racism was legalized without slavery. In mid-Century there was a time of
remembering and attempting to assert our ideals, perhaps partly due to
World War II. The Civil Rights movement advanced the cause of the Civil
War 100 years after Antietam, . But its reality and advances are
continually up for grabs as America’s original sin never goes away.
Incredibly, the story of the Civil War remains a matter of debate.
are many things about World War II that defined us as a nation and as a
world leader in the second half of the last Century. The willingness of
the nation and that generation of men and women to sacrifice for the
survival of democracy, western civilization, and freedom is possibly one
of the most significant world-embracing actions in human history. The
darkness of that era is forgotten; the Holocaust is an academic
subject; totalitarian government is seen by some as “effective”; Nazis
can be good people. The catastrophic danger of forgetting is sitting on
I am a son of that “greatest generation”.
My father was a medic in Europe during the last year of the war. I was
born just three years after his return home, a Baby Boomer who was
nursed and nurtured in the air of the World War II victory as were many
of my generation. I grew up in a small rural community in northern
Pennsylvania. There were veterans everywhere. My classmate's parents, my
teachers, my neighbors were vets.
I never heard a
word about it from my father. Admittedly I was too young to hear the
real stories- TV newsreels and documentaries and movies were the story
we heard. I was never privy to what it was like or to hear the stories-
if they even shared them- from the nights at the American Legion or
VFW. Patriotism- pride in our soldiers and the courage of a nation that
stood up for what it believed as right and honorable- was everywhere.
my tenth birthday, hundreds of miles away in Philadelphia, my father
had exploratory surgery to find the cause of his “spells.” They removed a
non-malignant tumor. All that meant was it wouldn’t metastasize. He
died six-years later, two and a half years after my mother, in a VA
hospital, the final thank you from the country he served. With him went
any possible access to his stories or experiences.
is an irrevocable divide and what wasn’t learned before the death may
forever be lost; they become secrets, intentional or not. Much of what I
think I know of my family is based on hearsay, rumor, gossip, and
faintly remembered or overheard bits of information. “Little pitchers
[may] have big ears,” but often what we hear is biased, misunderstood,
misinterpreted, and colored by a lack of depth of understanding. The
information becomes the stuff of myth, not unlike the “creation stories”
of all native people worldwide. These are just narrower in their scope
picking out a single branch or two of the human family tree. As time
passes and more people die the more mythic becomes the story,
potentially more enhanced by ones own experiences that are read back
into the past.
All I ever learned of Dad's service was
second hand from family members- mainly his sister who became my
brother’s and my guardian. Not that I was all that interested at the
time. What I knew about World War II was that it was big, important, and
horrific. There were family stories that he had served in the 10th
Armored Division under the mythic General Patton and that he was at the
Battle of the Bulge. Other stories told of how he was too old to have
been in the war, 39 years old and the owner of a pharmacy, when he went
overseas. There was the family creation story of his meeting my mother
in Georgia while in training and marrying her- a younger Jewish woman
from Brooklyn- at the Jewish USO. He was, of course, not Jewish.
about six or seven years ago I began to do some more reading about the
war as its seventieth anniversary approached and worked on family
history. I opened my grandmother’s diaries for the first time in years
and discovered, hidden between the everyday events were clues, bits and
pieces that fit the “mythic” stories from my family. I was about to fall
headlong into World War II. Four years ago I followed the 10th Armored
and my father’s 80th Armored Medical Battalion in their year in Europe
and wrote about it for my blog. I found things about what my Dad was
involved in and learned some of his story as shaped by the events of
that year. But I knew there had to be even more to the story than what I
had found in a relatively cursory exploration.
now coming up on the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. I have been
reading and researching continuing to look for more clues to what Red
Lehman faced. For many this is history. For me and my generation, it is
recent events. It is what made our parents' generation into what we now
call the Greatest Generation. Perhaps it has taken me all these 70 years
of my life to begin to understand what that means. I am humbled by it
and am just here to tell a very small part of that story. As I see us
forgetting the meaning and sacrifice of that era, I want to do what I
can to see that it is not so easily set aside.