Tapping his rubber-tipped cane on the floor, the aging veteran spoke.
“I have a question,” he said. “If World War II was the war to end all wars, why’d they give it a number?”
Thankfully, the man wasn’t asking me. I could back away, blinking at the weight of the question, and scrawl it down in my notebook to consider later. His fellow veterans were left with the unpleasant task of answering, or at least filling the silence. They didn’t even try.
I went one recent night to the Free and Accepted Mason’s Lodge No. 343 in San Fernando. The stated purpose was to gather together World War II veterans and listen to war stories. My real purpose was to hear war stories, war stories told by men whose war, to a great extent, shaped the world I grew up in, live in and will die in.
They are old and gray now, gray without exception. One has Parkinson’s disease, others arthritis, and still others are stuck with hearts that likely will stop before the end of this year, the 50th since their war ended.
In the black-and-white photographs they displayed, though, their faces looked more like mine than I could be comfortable with.
I was born in 1966, 21 years after the end of the Second World War. By that time, the world that existed when these men went to fight was long, long gone.
The countries that lost the war were on their way to becoming great and powerful nations, and were our allies. Our once-proud allies were either impotent on the world stage or were our enemies now. And the strangely beautiful yellow radiation symbol was painted in schools and churches across America.
People of my generation can’t possibly understand the world as it was. By the time we got here, it wasn’t there anymore. The thing to do, it seems, is listen to the stories of old men.
Clayton Reed is the veteran with Parkinson’s disease. Because he is so frail, and unable so speak, a friend took the podium in his stead this recent night and read for the audience this Marine’s war story.
Much of it took place on Iwo Jima, where “I was called the old man in the company because I was 26 years old,” Reed wrote. I thought: He did this when he was three years younger than I am now.
The battle for the tiny Pacific Island resulted in 25,000 American casualties, nearly 7,000 of them deaths. Of some 21,000 Japanese soldiers, only 1,083 survived.
Reed was one of 10 in his company of 240 who lived to tell about death on Iwo, where the battle cost 3,500 lives per square mile.
After acting as a member of the occupying forces in Japan after the killing stopped, Reed said he was invited to re-enlist. He declined.
“I had seen enough war.”
Hans zan Hamberger’s story took place a continent away in a country that had been occupied earlier in the war.
“The Dutch occupation was not . . . a happy one,” he told the audience made up mostly of Masons and their wives. From hunger, he said, “The Dutch people ate tulips.”
He was a “spotter” with the Dutch underground. Spotters, zan Hamberger explained, boys of 14 or so like himself, would search the skies for shot-up Allied planes returning from Dresden or Luebeck and wait for the tell-tale bloom of a parachute.
They learned to judge distance and altitude, he said, even in clear skies. And when a fighter pilot stepped out of his aircraft at 5,000 or 15,000 feet, little Hans and his friends would climb on their bikes and peddle like mad to find him, dressing him in wooden shoes, baggy pants and overcoats when they did.
“By the time the Germans came, they would be looking for the American,” zan Hamberger said. “But they could never find them.” He paused. “I saved quite a few guys.”
Art Blackie, a former petty officer in the British Royal Navy, moved so slowly to the podium that members of the audience adjusted themselves in their padded chairs.
He spoke for several minutes.
One audience member, who would later stand with all the veterans in the audience, turned to another veteran sitting next to him. “I can’t hear him,” he whispered.
“I can’t either,” said his friend.
They both turned back toward the podium and politely pretended to listen anyway.
World War II was this nation’s Proud War. Soldiers were driven to do things that sickened them because it was the only way to deal with warlike fascism. Those who fought it returned heroes, and they still speak with some nostalgia and great pride of their contributions.
They also often denounce war with the passion of the truest pacifists.
“People today, particularly in this country, don’t know what war is,” said former Army Staff Sgt. John Kochheim. “War is disastrous.”
“This war business is not a game,” said Martin Farinash, once a Navy machinist’s mate. “I’m very glad to stand here this night and tell you all. . . .” He paused. “I’m glad it’s over.”
And it was The Bomb--the one Harry S. Truman called “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world"--these men said, that brought it to an end. They were soldiers once, and young, and as far as they’re concerned, they didn’t deserve to die invading the Japanese mainland.
Revisionist historians, who argue that the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immoral, or at least unneeded, had no friends at this dinner.
Steven Blank, a former Navy man who organized the evening, was in the Pacific in August, 1945, and he knew why he was there.
“We were sitting there waiting to invade Japan,” he said. “The probability of my coming out alive was almost zero.
“That invasion never took place, thanks to the courage of President Truman.”
It was the one and only time this night that the audience applauded.
World War II could never affect me and my generation the way it did Steven Blank and Clayton Reed, whose wife said he almost never speaks about Iwo Jima, but lay crying in his sleep one night last February when ceremonies marked the 50th anniversary of that battle.
It affects us, though.
Legacies of World War II are everywhere. We ride on jet planes, radar is old hat, the United Nations carries on and the ancient evils are slain.
My friends and I will almost certainly never lie crying late at night for buddies blown to bits a half century ago. I will almost certainly never go to a reunion like this and have to tell war stories. And maybe my brother, the Marine, won’t have to either.
But I was glad to listen quietly.
Not much I could add, except thank you.