“Freedom, in any case, is only possible by constantly struggling for it.” —Albert Einstein
He’s an old man now. He refers to himself as “The ancient one.” There are few left. Veterans of the second World War. I spoke to the only one I know last night. My father-in-law. He’s 96 years-old and lives a humble, quiet life in a mobile home park in Barstow, California. He lives alone with his small dog Sunny as his only companion. His wife, dear sweet grandma, lives in a Memory Care Facility in Victorville 30 minutes away. She is 95. He sees her seldom and misses her greatly- as we all do.
As an 18-year-old he enlisted in the army and was part of the U.S. 20th Armored Division- infantry battalion. He was trained as a small mortar gunner (50 mm) that was packed on his back (and shared by other soldiers) through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Austria. I commented that the mortar must have been very loud. He said no, actually it was the M-1 rifle that he held up to his head that probably effected his hearing.
My own father enlisted into the Navy when he was only 17. Unimaginable. He would have been the same age as my father-in-law had he lived. He died of lung cancer at age 66 from a cigarette habit that he began in the military; of course that was before they knew the dangers of it all.
They both fought for an ideal that neither of them thoroughly understood at the time. Democracy was a political term that probably held little meaning to a boy in his late teens. Maybe it did then. But the thought of another country threatening family and freedom, was an easier concept to digest and a cause worth fighting for.
Our country was different then and the consciousness of who we are and why- has changed. Some for good and some for not, depending on your point of view.
The 20th Armored Division helped to liberate Dachau, the first concentration camp of its kind founded in 1933. “We could smell the people miles away,” he said. It wasn’t the cremated bodies or the dead, he explained, but the diseased and filthy living that created the stench. “They (the survivors) were grateful,” he said. “They wanted to hug us . . . and many of them wept.”
My Dad was assigned to Asiatic/Pacific Theater on the USS Oak Hill. This ship saw action in Saipan, Okinawa, Guadalcanal and Palau. His ship deployed tanks and Marines, and also collected the wounded and the dead. He didn’t speak much about it. His military diary went blank after a few pages . . .
When I asked my father-in-law about his experience, he paused, reflected a long moment and said, “It was good to see Paris.”
To this day there are still people alive in France who appreciate what the Americans did there to free them. But I often wonder if we Americans do.
I don’t think any of us realize the value of our freedom that was so hard fought and won so many years ago. That freedom that is still so fragile and precious. As I write this sitting in my garden swing, the flag waving gently from the deck above me, and the fountain bubbling a few feet away, in the peace of my own home- I don’t think I have a clue. Though I try to.
If you encounter one of these old and venerable veterans, watch them. They light up and sometimes even weep when they see children. “That’s why,” they will say. “We did it for them.”
I think that’s us . . .
It’s not enough to say we appreciate these men and women who gave part or all of their lives for the privilege of this freedom.
Very simply put, and extremely understated . . . Thank you!
What you did means more than we know or can say.