WASHINGTON, D.C.–Las Vegas is reportedly the most visited city on Memorial Day weekend. Go figure. But engaging in risky behavior is not so alien to a holiday that commemorates those who have fallen in America’s wars. Luck means a lot in Vegas and in war. Near the end of his life, philosopher Sidney Hook wrote, “The older I become, the more impressed I am with the role of luck or chance in life.” The same would probably be said by any veteran whom you would have the good fortune to meet at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. this weekend at the Smithsonian’s “National World War II Reunion: Tribute to a Generation.” The reunion coincides with the dedication, this Saturday afternoon, of the World War II National Memorial on the Mall.
It is estimated that of the 16.4 million Americans who served in World War II, only about five million are still alive, the youngest being in their mid-seventies. Those remaining veterans are estimated to be dying at a rate of 1,100 to 1,700 per day. Therefore, the opportunity to meet these servicemen and women is a fleeting one. Thankfully, many of these veterans are at this weekend’s reunion on the Mall.
I attended some of the opening day’s events on Thursday, May 27. I arrived at the Mall around midday and the heat was intense. I’m about 45 years younger than most of the veterans attending, and it was clear that they were really making an effort to stand the heat and see all they could. I started out by looking at the WWII-era vehicles on display–jeeps, half-tracks, ambulances, tanks, etc. They are in mint condition and privately owned. The owners are usually veterans from several different service eras, and often they have purchased these vehicles either directly from other vets or from U.S. military scrap yards. One vehicle in particular was memorable because it came with a real-live WWII vet. He had pictures of his days in the war and some other personal mementos, including a Purple Heart. He had a Nazi flag draped across the front of the jeep. I asked where he got it. He said it was an abandoned flag he picked up when his unit was moving through Italy.
The heat was starting to get to me, so I ducked into a large tent to get out of the sun. Inside were former Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern being interviewed in front of a large crowd about their experiences during the war and what it was like running for president with a WWII vet’s record and experience. I came in at a point when Dole was answering a question about the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal and decided I really wasn’t in the mood for hearing about contemporary political issues. I wanted to walk in the nostalgia of the past for a little while longer.
I made my way to the “Reunion Hall,” one of the largest tents on the Mall. It is about three-quarters the length of a football field. There are many partitions, about eight-feet high, with the insignia and name of every American military division to have served in WWII. I came closer to the boards and realized that they were message boards; each one filled with typed and handwritten notes from veterans and relatives of veterans who sought to make contact with other members of their divisions, battalions, or companies.
Many notes contain heartfelt pleas by relatives asking for any information that a veteran might have about their loved ones. For example, one note was from a son of a veteran, who said his father had recently died and, while going through his papers, the son realized his father had played a substantial role in a unit involved in a great deal of combat in WWII. The son was searching for anyone who might remember his father and have some stories to tell of him. Another card, from the sister of an airman lost at sea, asked for anyone who might have knowledge of what became of him or memories about his time in service. Several veterans and their families filled out cards by hand. I was surprised that so many of the veterans had e-mail addresses. They’ve lived to see immense changes in communication.
Next was the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project tent. Congress created the Project in 2000, with the goal of obtaining the memories of as many veterans and civilians as possible who played some role during American wars. It is not restricted to WWII, although the death rates of such veterans were the reason for the passage in 2000. It is amazing Congress waited so long before starting such a project. It collects memoirs, interviews, letters, photographs, maps and military documents of those who served in American wars as far back as WWI and maintains them as part of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
When I arrived, they were ending a session on POWs, with several former POWs who had told stories of their experiences in the camps. One session of reminiscences after another was scheduled. Thankfully, I had arrived just in time to see a reunion of soldiers from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 1st Battalion (known as the “Lost Battalion”) of the 141st Regiment of the 36th (Texas) Division. This was a battalion consisting of Japanese Americans who volunteered or were drafted to serve in the European theatre. There were several who volunteered to serve after they and their families had been moved to internment camps. The so-called “Lost Battalion” was a unit of about 600 men that advanced in the eastern French mountains, called the Vosges Mountains, only to find themselves surrounded by Germans. They spent a week in the mountains, holding out against the Germans and waiting for relief from their fellow battalion members. The battalion lost about 400 of its men and was eventually relieved by fellow soldiers.
The next panel consisted of men who were involved in the D-Day operations on June 6, 1944. One was from the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, which came in four hours after the first wave on Omaha Beach. Other members of the panel included a LCVP, or “Higgins Boat,” pilot and a combat pilot who was in the air for a total of 16 hours on D-Day, flying three long missions. The combat pilot said he was so stiff, although only 21 years old at the time, that he had to have two crewmen lift him out of the cockpit and put him on the wing before he could bend his legs.
The Higgins boat pilot was asked to recount a story from the war. He noted that war involves a great deal of luck or chance. He recalled that he and another boat pilot were told on June 5, 1944, that the invasion was the next day and that one of them would stay in the Channel area and participate in the invasion, while the other would accompany their commanding officer to the Mediterranean for a secondary invasion group. The Mediterranean was considered to be the safer location. The two pilots were told to flip a coin to decide which one stayed. The pilot who stayed said he felt very unlucky. The pilot who went to the Mediterranean had an uneventful landing, but within the week his plane was shot down when he was going to retrieve the unit’s mail. The pilot telling this story said it was a reminder of how it didn’t matter where you were in the war, you could die at any moment.
The opportunity to see these brave men is an increasingly rare experience. When they pass on, WWII will retreat even further in the public’s memory, to become a war that might as well be “ancient” history. As one veteran of D-Day said, “We are relics, but we are living relics.” If you are able to come see these living “relics,” you should make the effort. It will be worth the trip.
–Ian Drake is an attorney and college instructor in Alexandria, Va.