On Veterans Day in 2013, President Barack Obama honored Richard Overton, 107 years-old, at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Mr. Owens is believed to be the oldest living American veteran of the Second World War.
Soon enough, the day will come when the last surviving American World War II veteran dies. That will be a sad day indeed, as there is nothing like learning about history from the mouths of people who lived it. Yet, just because our veterans pass on does not mean their memories must die too. It is up to surviving generations to honor what these brave men and women did to ensure that tyranny did not win the day in the most deadly conflict the world has ever known.
My father, now 82, was but a boy during the Second World War, yet he remembers what it was like when he was growing up in Jackson Heights, New York at the time. All along the city blocks, he would tell me, lights hung in the windows of apartments and standalone houses, indicating that men from those households were away serving in the war to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In some of the windows there were gold stars, indicating that those who lived there had lost a family member to the ongoing conflict.
But even if a family had no members serving, news of the war raging overseas was in the papers, on radio broadcasts, and on the news tickers in Manhattan. Rationing was in effect. Young people living in the United States today might find it hard to believe that Americans could not just go into a store and purchase as much as butter, sugar, or meat as they wanted; that, in fact, the federal government had issued to every family ration books and tokens, limiting how much in the way of food products, gasoline, and even items such as wire fencing a person could legally purchase at the time. Indeed, popular cookbooks came out with wartime editions, advising homemakers how to prepare meals for their families while the food rations were in effect. What’s more, the young men in uniform were everywhere: US Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines, on leave or passing through town en route to deployment, were a common sight all throughout New York City, The Sentinel reports.
I cannot tell you how many times my father said with a shake of his head, “You never saw anything like it; you never felt anything like it. The whole world was at war.” His words still give me chills whenever I think of them. The whole world at war – the thought staggers the imagination.
No doubt, for Britons and Europeans, their memories of World War II are in less danger of fading than is the case for those living in the United States. After all, France, Poland, and much of Eastern Europe was overrun with the Nazi occupation, and London was a major target of Luftwaffe bombing raids. And that is just to speak of the Allies – it is to say nothing of the price the German people paid for following Hitler’s lunatic march into war; or that paid by the Japanese who were ready to follow their emperor to the bitter end, and only surrendered when Hirohito, seeing the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki leveled by atomic bombs, agreed to an unconditional surrender to the Allies to bring the terrible war to an end. It is also to say nothing of the suffering of the people of China and other Asian nations at the hands of a rapacious Japanese army who truly believed in the divine right of the emperor in whose name they marched.
The veterans of the Second World War are dying off, and soon enough, there will be no more of them left to tell us about the time they lived in and the things they did in the war. But their stories will remain, told in works of fiction and nonfiction, documentary and feature films, and memorials all over the world. It is important that we learn the history of these men and women, both to honor them and the sacrifices they made, and to remind ourselves that plentiful food, fuel, and other items we consider our due are only plentiful today because of what countless others did for us overseas and working on the home front in the shadow of the greatest war the world has ever seen.