I have two direct connections to World War II. My folks were married in 1938, and by the fall of 1941 were still without children. I was born in October of 1942, just ten months after Pearl Harbor. It occurred to me somewhere along the line that the shock of war led to my conception (though both of my parents had passed before I could ask them the question).
Then, I have a vague recollection of my uncle Russell in a sailor's uniform, though it might be the recollection of a photo, as I would have been but two years old. I have a later, clear recollection of a one-legged man who came to our house to talk with my grandmother. He had been on the ship with Russell in the last month of the war when a kamikaze pilot dove his plane into the ship, taking his leg and Russell's life. I remember the house and the room, so know that this happened in 1948 or '49, when I was six or seven and the war was fresh in adult minds. I was probably whisked away for the real conversation, but I remember the man with one leg.
I am currently mesmerized by the Ken Burns Public Television special on World War II, which is called "The War." It fills in bits of world and family history that I had forgotten or not known. I am following Russell in the Pacific, other uncles in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany, and my father's planes as they drop their bombs. He was too old for the draft, so spent the war putting radios into airplanes in Rapid City, South Dakota.
In almost 16 television hours, Burns follows the war from the perspective of four American towns: Sacramento, Calif., Waterbury, Conn., Luverne, Minn., and Mobile, Ala. He interviews the soldiers from these places who went, the wives and girlfriends who stayed home, women and men who worked in defense plants, Japanese citizens sent to internment camps, a newspaper editor who wrote about Luverne and the war, and those too young to go who played war games and hoed Victory Gardens. There is archival battle footage, still photographs, and moving pictures of the generals and privates in Europe, Russia, Africa, and the Pacific, and of American civilians and military personnel trapped and imprisoned in the Philippines, Japan, and Germany.
Current coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq feature car bombs and improvised explosive devices. Occasionally, there are pictures and videos of civil wars in Darfur or Sri Lanka, and feature films about Rwanda. But there is nothing going on today that is more brutal or awful than what is portrayed in "The War."
And the controversies about tactics in Iraq? Generals sent thousands of Americans to die in misguided or ill-planned attacks in Europe and on small Pacific Islands. In last night's episode, 4,500 Marines died because the word that a small airport on a small island was no longer relevant to the Japanese war effort did not get back to the proper American authorities.
For me, the two most poignant scenes involve now Senator Daniel Inouye and a Crow Indian soldier named Joe Medicine Crow. Inouye tells about the first man he killed, how he felt it his responsibility as a leader to do the job himself and felt no pain or remorse. But later, when he meets a German soldier in a house in a town they capture, and the soldier puts up hands to surrender, then reaches into a breast pocket, Inouye instinctively bashes him with his rifle butt, and pictures of the man's wife and children fall to the floor. "That is war," says Inouye.
Medicine Crow also establishes himself as a leader, and in taking a small village, literally bumps into a German soldier. He could have shot him, but instead, throws down his rifle and wrestles the German to the ground. Joe has him by the throat and is about to kill him when the man utters "mama." Medicine Crow lets the man go.
Those incidents stand out in a sea or brutality. Soldiers who admit today that they took no prisoners, pilots who dropped thousands of pounds of bombs on villages and cities and have nightmares about the people they killed to this day, and the story last night of a Marine prying gold teeth from a wounded, still living, Japanese soldier's mouth with his bayonet.
Paul Fussell, an infantry officer in the drive toward Germany, says that survival at Normandy was not a matter of intelligence, athletic ability, or prayer, but one of luck. Generals rolled the dice and you went to Utah Beach or Omaha. You lived, died, or were maimed. As were the tens of thousands of French and German civilians ripped apart by bombing and artillery attacks as the Allies moved across Europe. There were millions in Leningrad, over half a million American casualties, eight million Germans, almost a million from the U.K., and 46 million Soviets!
I took my regular morning bike ride on Friday, going from Joseph toward Hurricane Creek and the mountains. They have been dull greens and browns for weeks, but new snow made them bright on Friday. I made the loop on Russell Lane, came back to the Hurricane Creek Highway and rode toward Joseph and the moraines.
They, too, were defined by snow and cloud shadows, and they were beautiful. I thought and thought about The War. Thought about Paul Fussell's comments about luck and war, and about how lucky I am to be living, here and now.
Rich Wandschneider is the executive director of Fishtrap, Inc. He may be reached at 426-3623.