Dear Old G.I. Joe

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.

We did.

I hope you had a happy V-J Day.

36 comments

  1. Barbara Zuleski - September 3, 2020 8:50 am

    Bless you, We remember.

    Reply
  2. Shirley Lieberman - September 3, 2020 8:55 am

    Read your blog at 4:00 am this morning. War is terrible. My uncles all returned from service different people. Some didn’t ever want to talk about what happened.
    Thank you for your compassion and honesty.

    Reply
  3. Pat Neely - September 3, 2020 11:12 am

    My 95 year old dad is one of these – a Marine with 2 purple hearts, but one of the most gentle and kindest man you’ve ever known. Thanks for remembering.

    Reply
  4. Gene Reynolds - September 3, 2020 11:31 am

    Sean, Thanks for remembering our dads and grandfathers, but you forgot to mention that a lot of guys and gals in Europe were destined for the war against Japan a short time later, congregating in Marseilles. To say the least they LOVED Truman for dropping the bomb. Two books to recommend: No Time for Fear by Dianne Fessler about Army and Navy nurses and their experiences and UP FRONT by Bill Mauldin about the life of the combat troops on the ground. Both should be read by our children and grandchildren.

    Reply
  5. Liz Bishop - September 3, 2020 11:50 am

    Beautiful letter. I had tears in my eyes through much of it. My father also served in Europe. He only ever talked about the good times and the places he had been. He never got the chance to visit Europe again. I should have asked him questions.
    How I miss him!

    Reply
  6. Farris - September 3, 2020 12:11 pm

    Thank you to all these brave men and women ! My father joined the Navy at age sixteen and was sent to the Pacific , can you imagine a sixteen year old going to war !!! My uncle went in at that age too and my husband had five uncles , all his Mom’s brothers in various branches of the military in WWII , all came home but one .They are truly the greatest generation !
    God bless them and God bless America !

    Reply
  7. Patricia A Schmaltz - September 3, 2020 12:12 pm

    Loved this piece. Not only the heartfelt tribute to a great (possibly the greatest) generation… but the “out the wazoo”. That made it real for me.

    Reply
  8. Jan - September 3, 2020 12:36 pm

    Beautiful and meaningful tribute to the truly “greatest generation”. They knew what was worth fighting for and possibly dying for. Freedom is the greatest gift on earth and with all its flaws (due to its flawed humans), America is still the greatest country on earth.

    Reply
  9. Jo Ann - September 3, 2020 12:43 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for remembering. All the men in my family served somewhere, one left behind in Normandy. Few are left, & fewer each day. When I think of those who served & some whiners today, it makes me sick. But, life goes on & there will always be men & women who serve their country. Bless them all.

    Reply
  10. Phil (Brown Marlin) - September 3, 2020 12:47 pm

    Sean, thanks so much for this beautiful tribute. My wife’s dad was a POW in a stalag after his B-17 was shot down. One of his fellow inmates somehow smuggled a camera and later published a book which we now have a copy of. I urge everyone, especially young people, to visit the WWII Museum in New Orleans and please consider contributing to it. We cannot let our future forget the sacrifices made by the men and women that Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation.

    Reply
  11. Cheryl W. - September 3, 2020 12:58 pm

    Thank you for this. My parents were married in 1939. My dad was in the African theatre. My mom is 99 and all she wants is to be with her sweetie, and asks us if he will know her when she gets to heaven because, as she says, she looks so old. She has dreams of their early years and walks in the mist of her memories with him every day.

    Reply
  12. Robert M Brenner - September 3, 2020 1:18 pm

    Not much more to say than what’s been posted but today thanks to “The Greatest Generation” EVER! You made America the land of the free and definitely the home of the brave. NEVER FORGET this generation ❤️. I won’t…

    Reply
  13. David W King - September 3, 2020 1:33 pm

    Wonderfully written! Thank you so much!

    Reply
  14. Deborah Griffith - September 3, 2020 1:41 pm

    One of your best. Love you

    Reply
  15. Charlie Mathers - September 3, 2020 1:46 pm

    Thank you, Sean.
    One of the sons of one of those guys.

    Reply
  16. Tom - September 3, 2020 1:55 pm

    Thank you for remembering these great men. My dad served in the Pacific theatre. I heard many war stories about the Philippines and New Guinea. He was truly one of the great men of the Greatest Generation.

    Reply
  17. Billy Travis - September 3, 2020 1:58 pm

    They all deserve better leaders that we have given them. Think of these men and women when you go to the polls, and vote for the most honorable of the two.

    Reply
  18. Dianne - September 3, 2020 2:05 pm

    Another wonderful column, Sean. Some of my most treasured memories are the letters written between my Mother and Daddy during WWII. My Daddy was in the U.S. Navy, and in one of his letters to my Mother, he relives the first time they kissed each other in the car when he brought her home from a date. They weren’t shy about telling each other how much they missed and loved each other, the memories they had before he left for war, and how they couldn’t wait to see, hold, and kiss each other when he returned home. Such incredible memories of America’s Greatest Generation. Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
  19. sharon suleski - September 3, 2020 2:37 pm

    amen

    Reply
  20. Landa - September 3, 2020 4:25 pm

    Beautiful!!!

    Reply
  21. Ken P - September 3, 2020 4:37 pm

    Thanks for remembering the greatest generation! My Grandfather fought in Europe. When he came home my Dad was 3 years old, born while he was away. Dad said he remembered wondering who is this guy and why was his Mother so crazy about him.

    Reply
  22. Linda Moon - September 3, 2020 5:32 pm

    Wow….these conversations from these beautiful old men who will always be boys. I think this post could be the beginning of the next book from a young writer of the South who can really tell a story. I’d read it. Sean, you might enjoy watching these two documentaries about men in those wars: “They Shall Not Grow Old” and “John Ford Goes To War”. I imagined and heard some conversations from the trenches as I read this letter from the old boy.

    Reply
  23. Donna - September 3, 2020 5:58 pm

    Have no words to describe how great this column is Sean.

    Reply
  24. Lisa Wilcox - September 3, 2020 7:06 pm

    Thank you for writing this. We take so much for granted in this country. Keep on writing- I look forward to your daily posts!

    Reply
  25. catladymac - September 3, 2020 7:49 pm

    Oh, and one other thing, Young Person, Every G*d D***ned one of us was Antifa !

    Reply
  26. MAM - September 3, 2020 8:59 pm

    Beautiful post! My dad served in WWI and WWII. I wish I hadn’t lost him when I was only 28. I remember very few of his stories. Last Saturday, our local American Legion celebrated the end of WWII by honoring the still living veterans – 24 of them in our tiny county of less than 30,000 people. New Mexico had the highest volunteer rate for WWII of any state in the union (or so we are told). I interviewed 80 of the WWII veterans before they died and put them into a book. “God’s Umbrella: Southwest New Mexico WWII Survivors.” I still enjoy rereading the book! Shameless plug. It’s available on Amazon. Definitely members of THE GREATEST GENERATION!

    Reply
  27. Janna Washington - September 3, 2020 9:55 pm

    I have that legacy recorded in my daddy’s own handwriting in letters that he sent to his precious mother. She had all 4 of her sons serving in WWII. Her letters were equally gut-wrenching! They all came home! My daddy lived to see 101 as did his younger brother! Amazing!

    Reply
  28. Howell V Pruett - September 3, 2020 10:51 pm

    Thank you Sean. You are getting better and better at this writing game. This was a beautiful piece. I knew many of these boys/men andyou caught their souls.

    Reply
  29. Susan - September 4, 2020 2:04 am

    Thank you for this beautiful heart warming column. Yesterday was my 65th birthday and every year I’m thankful for for the men and women that served and feel honored that V-J Day and my birthday are celebrated on the same day!

    Reply
  30. Mark - September 4, 2020 2:35 am

    Thank you, Sean. I have served in the US Army for the past 32 years partly because of the inspiration of two grandfathers who both served in WWII. Great column!

    Reply
  31. Maureen Grandon - September 4, 2020 6:41 am

    My cousin was so young in the Pacific, he cried when he heard the war was over and he cried when he was telling me about it not long ago. He lived to be 95, yes The Greatest Generation.

    Reply
  32. Penn Wells - September 4, 2020 6:53 am

    No Suckers or Losers in this column. 👍

    Reply
  33. Brett Campbell - September 5, 2020 6:07 am

    Bravo.

    Reply
  34. Billy Allgood - September 5, 2020 8:33 pm

    Thank you Sean. All I can say is may God richly bless you for remembering and may God richly bless America!

    Reply
  35. Martha Johnson - September 5, 2020 9:38 pm

    The story of my childhood – even though my parents tried their best to shield me and carry on as best they could. I was scared silly by Pearl Harbor – I was 9 – then later both my parents baby brothers went in the army: one served to fight the desert fox in Alfrica and was permantly wounded and the other was in the Battle of the Bulge. It was all scary! He arrived in NYC on Christmas Day and we all spoke on the phone with him….. I can still get worked up over it all…

    Reply
  36. Larry Wall - GA - September 12, 2020 2:38 am

    Sean, all that you put into this piece is so accurate with what my 97 year old b-in-law experience. He entered the Army at just after he turned 19 and then spent three years in the South Pacific, enduring four invasions of different areas from New Guinea up through the Phillipine Islands. He was sitting on a ship about to leave for an invasion of Japan when they received the news that Japan had surrendered. He knows Truman’s awful decision likely saved his life. He came home to Georgia and went to work and raised a family with my sister. He still doesn’t say much about what they lived through but, he certainly knew how to make the most out of enjoying life. Thank you for such a touching tribute to all of those who have given us so much.

    Reply

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