Dear Young Person
I am an imaginary old man. I am every World War II veteran you never knew. I am each faceless GI Joe from a bygone European War.
I am hundreds of thousands of infantrymen, airmen, sailors, marines, mess sergeants, seabees, officers, engineers, doctors, buck privates, and rear-echelon potato-peelers.
We hopped islands in the Pacific. We served in the African war theater. We beat the Devil. Then we came home and became the old man next door. We are in our 90s and 100s now.
Today was our holiday. It was on this day, September 2, 1945, that the war officially ended.
Wartime was a wild era to be young. When we went overseas we were teenagers, scared spitless, with government haircuts, wearing new wedding rings.
We hadn’t seen action yet. We were so jittery we smoked through our week’s rations of Luckies in one day.
Then it happened. It was different for everyone. But it happened. Shells landed everywhere. People screamed. And in a moment our fear melted away.
Suddenly, we had war jobs to do. And it didn’t matter who we were, or which posts were ours. Everyone worked in the grand assembly line of battle.
When the smoke cleared and the action was over, we had new confidence in ourselves. And we were no longer children.
No two experiences were alike. Each man had his own story. And we weren’t only men, either. There were 350,000 women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. People forget that.
Speaking of women. We guys were always talking about our sweethearts, wives, and mothers. If you even mentioned someone’s girl, a man would talk for hours about her. Then he’d show you wallet-sized pictures.
And even if you’d already seen his photos, you never interrupted a man who talked about his sweetheart. Because eventually, you’d be telling him about yours.
Everyone wanted to go home. Though, don’t get me wrong, we were going to finish our jobs. But you can’t imagine how badly we wanted to be sitting on a porch, shelling peas with Mama.
There were nights when we would stare at the moon and wonder if our families were looking at the same moon. There were moments of indescribable loneliness.
Infantrymen had it the hardest. I don’t know how our doughboys did it. They lived like pack mules. Their boots got wet and their feet swelled. When they removed their socks, their feet would be pale and waterlogged. Chunks of their heels would fall off.
A lot of infantrymen were sent to the hospitals with the dreaded “trench foot.” The funny thing is, they didn’t want to leave their post. They had to be dragged away cussing.
The food was bad. But sometimes it would be halfway decent. You learned to appreciate a creative company cook.
In Italy, sometimes we could buy eggs from local merchants for outrageous prices. We spent every dime we had on eggs because it had been a long time since we’d had real ones. Then we’d gorge ourselves. Once, I remember a GI eating 32 scrambled eggs. Boy, was he sorry the next morning.
It wasn’t all horror. A lot of guys brought banjos, guitars, and fiddles. They’d play music at night sometimes in the open air. We’d square dance and laugh. Others would sit on their helmets, smoking, thinking of home.
The Germans had a local radio station that broadcasted American music. They played everything from Bing to Frank. Between songs, a German gal talked over the airwaves to American GIs in a sexy voice.
She would speak flawless English and say, “Give up, boys, there’s no point trying, you can’t win. Your girls are at home cheating on you, they don’t love you anymore, your wives hate you. Give up. It’s over. You lost.”
We thought she was hysterical. Her American accent sounded a little off, too. But some of the guys would hear her words and get awfully sad.
When the war ended, it was almost too much joy at once. We’d been away so long that we were afraid to trust good news.
So when we heard that the official papers had been signed, and the war was actually over, it was like Christmas morning. Multiplied times a hundred. No. Times a billion.
Those of us overseas wrote letters to family. We told our wives we were coming home. Told our kids to grease up their baseball gloves. Our letters were covered in little wet polka dots, if you get my drift.
Stateside, there were already huge celebrations happening. Sailors climbed lampposts to unfurl American flags. Infantrymen stood on rooftops, toasting mugs of homebrew. Mothers were frying chickens out the wazoo.
People were partying everywhere from San Bernardino to Flatbush. Big cities, little towns, and the rural parts between.
There were ticker tape parades, auto processions, and girls would kiss any guy in government clothes.
Many of us got kissed so often our cheeks went raw and our lips started to bleed. Strangers would kiss us. Old women would kiss us. Our ribs ached from too many hugs.
We are old now. Most of us who survived are in assisted living homes, or some place where a nurse changes our sheets. We don’t get many kisses anymore.
More of us die each day. Soon we will be evaporated like the early morning fog of Anzio; or the mists of Normandy. And you won’t see us anymore.
But we are the same boys we always were. We still get scared sometimes. We still look at the moon and wonder where our loved ones are. We still like talking about our best girls. And we still believe that the charging spirit of humankind can suffer the hell of life and survive to tell about it.