Dear Young Person
I am an imaginary old man. I am every World War II veteran you never knew. I am each faceless GI from the bygone European War. Or any other war for that matter.
I am in my 90s and 100s now. Lots of young folks probably don’t even know I exist.
In my war, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of infantrymen, airmen, sailors, marines, mess sergeants, seabees, brass hats, engineers, doctors, medics, 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 fart next door.
Wartime was one heck of an era to be young. Let me tell ya. When we went overseas we were still teenagers, smooth skinned, scared spitless, with government haircuts, wearing brand new wedding rings. We hadn’t seen action yet, so we were jittery and lots of us smoked through a 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 and we had war jobs to do. 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 boys.
And anyway, we weren’t just boys, we were girls, too. There were 350,000 females serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. People forget that.
Speaking of women. We guys were always talking about our sweethearts, wives, and mothers. If you mentioned someone’s girl a man was liable to talk for hours about her. And even if you’d already seen his wallet photos before, you never interrupted a guy talking about his gal. Because eventually you’d be talking about yours.
There were nights overseas when we would stare at the moon and wonder if our sweethearts 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, their feet swelled, and their flesh became waterlogged. Chunks of their heels would fall off; the dreaded “trench foot.”
The funny thing is, even though their feet were falling off these men still didn’t want to leave their posts. Many had to be dragged away cussing. That’s how committed these guys were.
Oh, and the food was godawful. You learned to appreciate the rarity of a creative company cook.
In Italy, sometimes we could buy eggs from local merchants for outrageously inflated prices. One time I knew a guy who ate 32 scrambled eggs in his tent one night. I asked him why he did this and he told me he didn’t want to die without tasting eggs one last time.
A lot of guys brought banjos, guitars, and fiddles over there. They’d play music at night sometimes in the open Italian air. We’d square dance and laugh. Others would sit on their helmets, smoking, thinking of home, wiping their eyes.
The Germans had a local radio station that broadcasted American stuff like Bing and Frank. Then, between songs, a German gal talked propaganda over the airwaves to us American GIs in a sexy voice, trying to mess with our heads.
She would speak flawless English and say, “Give up, boys, there’s no point trying, you can’t win. Everyone hates you. Your girls are at home cheating on you, they don’t love you anymore. Give up. It’s over. You lost.”
This was supposed to discourage us, but it usually just made us laugh. Or cry. Sometimes both.
When the war ended, we felt too much joy at once. In fact, most weren’t totally sure they could trust good news. A lot of guys got like that.
So when we heard the official papers had been signed and the war was over, it was Christmas morning multiplied times a hundred. No. Times a trillion.
Those of us overseas immediately wrote letters to family and 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 huge celebrations happening. Sailors climbed lampposts to unfurl 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.
But on this important day, you know what I think about? I think about all the guys who never got kissed again. Our men in the soil.
They were those who evaporated like the early morning fog over Anzio, or the thick mists of Normandy. They died young. And they died for a lot more than a three-day weekend of barbecues and Budweiser.
These were men who fell upholding the mantle of our unalienable American spirit, the Blessings of our Liberty, and the pride of their homeland. They were friends. They were the kids next door. They were children of God who once proved, beyond speculation, that even hellfire cannot kill the great idea that is America. I hope we never forget them. I know I never will.
Happy Memorial Day.