Friday, May 16, 2014

Brave men

Several years ago when my son was still in elementary school, he had to interview a hero.  He chose my wife's grandfather who had served in the Navy during WWII.  I still remember that afternoon when he said many times with a distant look in his eyes that he wasn't a hero – the guys who didn't make it back were the heroes to him.  Then he quietly talked about driving a landing craft full of Marines toward beaches in the Pacific, trying to get them in as close as possible to the sand because the more water they had to run through the less likely it was they'd make it.  He'd never even told his family about those experiences, and I feel grateful to have heard it at all.  Jack passed away a few years ago, and there's probably a lot more to the story that he kept to himself.

"I want to tell you what the [D-Day invasion] entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you." — Ernie Pyle

At the beginning of The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 by Cornelius Ryan, he says the book is "not a military history" but "the story of people."  Published in 1959, it was based upon the accounts of actual participants (who were still living) and is probably one of the best accounts of D-Day. It starts with a few stories immediately prior to the invasion but the main focus is on the events of June 6, 1944.  It does not give extensive detail about the strategies or even full accounts of each and every unit or battalion involved but instead weaves the experiences of both generals and soldiers into a very readable account. It can feel somewhat confusing at times, mixing both broad plans with on the ground accounts, but this style gives the book a very human feel. And it's not just confined to the Allies' viewpoint, but includes many stories from German soldiers and officers as well as a few from French civilians and the Underground Resistance. And all are presented in a surprisingly even and fair manner, without demonizing either side, which also gives it a somewhat detached feel at times. 

Another "classic" on WWII is Brave Men by Ernie Pyle, published in 1944.  Pyle was a war correspondent and this is a compilation of his newspaper columns while he was with soldiers fighting in Europe. Pyle was killed the following year on Iwo Jima, but he was especially popular for his intimate style of reporting that focused on the perspective of soldiers.  Reading this book really gives you a feeling for what they went through, both the grueling horror and the intense boredom. He covers not only the infantrymen on the front lines but the artillerymen behind them and the fighter and bomber pilots above. He tells what their days were like, what they ate, what kind of reception the locals gave. He shares his experiences at sea with the Italian invasion, how the supply chain worked, and how difficult it was to rebuild bridges that were blown up by retreating Germans. He tells not only of "GI Joe" but of "Sad Sack" and all the others who served, no matter how gloriously or not. It was surprising to see the names and home addresses of soldiers, but I can imagine people back home watching his columns, hoping to see a familiar name or maybe even writing to strangers. It's all done in a folksy way that must have forged a stronger connection between home and the front.  

I'm amazed at the sacrifices of the earlier generation and what they accomplished, and just as amazed at how little we sometimes seem to appreciate it now.  And I think Jack was a hero not just for what he did during the war but for his life afterward.  He came home, became a school teacher and later a principal, and raised his family – which I'm honored to be a part of now.

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