“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” So said President Abraham Lincoln while commemorating the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
Likewise, no words on an editorial page can do justice to the sacrifices made during the D-Day invasion 75 years ago this week, or to the sacrifices made during the rest of the war, abroad and at home.
World War II involved great men like Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and evil men like Adolf Hitler. But mostly it involved common people of uncommon valor. Those are the ones we rightly remember at times like these.
One of those was Wallace Eldridge, who crossed the English Channel three days after the initial D-Day invasion, if my memory is correct. Mr. Eldridge was my friend. He built a tennis court in my hometown of Wynne where my brother and I and some friends often played, often with him.
We played a lot, and we talked some – mostly about tennis, but we also talked a couple of times about his World War II experiences. My memories unfortunately are sketchy, but I believe he was the only original member of his unit who wasn’t killed or wounded. He once mentioned advancing hedgerow to hedgerow across the French landscape. And I remember him saying that he had wondered back then why he and his fellow combatants were out there killing each other.
While Mr. Eldridge was fighting across France, my grandfather, George Brawner, who lived just outside Wynne, served on the other side of the world on a naval troop transport in the Pacific Theatre. His ship was attacked in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and in the Battle of Okinawa. It was his job on a gun crew to distinguish between American and Japanese planes. Waiting for him at home was my grandmother, Dorothy, and their two children at the time – my dad, Larry, and my aunt, Peggy.
For a time I wrote biographies on commission for families, and several of them were about World War II veterans. One was Ed Penick, who flew P-38 fighter planes in China and then came home to lead Worthen Bank. He and wife Evelyn were among Little Rock’s leading couples.
Another was Cletis Overton of Malvern, who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and then endured years of suffering in prison camps. As the war was nearing its end, he and 600 other prisoners were packed into the hull of a ship, the Shinyo Maru, in inhuman conditions. The ship was just off the coast of the Philippines and ultimately headed to Japan when it was sunk by a U.S. torpedo, and he swam to his freedom.
His homecoming was like something from a movie. When his mother, Virgie, saw him approach the house, she wiped her hands on her apron and met him halfway between the porch and the gate.
“Before she ever touched me, she raised her head heavenward and prayed the most beautiful prayer of thanksgiving I’ve ever heard before or since,” he said.
All of these people in this column, except my dad and my aunt, have passed away. I remember wondering a few years ago, as the World War II generation’s members started dying off in large numbers, how we were going to make it as a country without them. Now, we’re almost at that point. Those who are left are in their 90s and above. The rest are gone.
They were a rock. They were marked by character and courage and grit, and at the same time, humility. They were people of few words and loud and clear actions. Oh, how we could use more of those qualities now!
The news anchor Tom Brokaw coined a term to describe them: “The Greatest Generation.” Some might debate that. (The Founding Fathers, maybe?) But here’s the thing: At least there’s an argument. No one describes my generation that way.
We didn’t save the world. We didn’t have a chance to. Who knows if we would have if we could have?
But since we didn’t, we can remember.
It’s the least we can do in gratitude for the past 75 years.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.