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Thursday, April 25, 2013
As the semester winds down, I've been spending my evenings with the Greatest Generation. Not literally, unfortunately, but in the form of student papers recording their encounters with World War II survivors.
For many years now, I've taught History 245, World War II, at Roanoke College. It's a popular class, almost always full - though, I hasten to add, due to the subject matter, not the professor. College students are fascinated with this era and the sweeping conflict that defined the 20th century. (Actually, I contend that the First World War was the more important event, but my rationale for that opinion will have to wait for another column.)
My students are required to interview someone who lived through WW II, preferably a veteran who served in uniform but often a civilian who experienced the war on the home front. The resulting oral histories are my favorite assignments to grade, and the only assignment for which students have come up to me (even years afterward) and thanked me for making them do.
The papers are always a mixed bag, as you might guess. Some are excellent, others mediocre and a rare few pretty bad. The main purpose of the assignment, however, is the experience, not the finished product per se. Each student typically sees only his or her paper. I get to read them all and have gotten to "meet" hundreds of vets in this way.
In the years I've been grading these papers, I've gotten a pretty good cross-section of the American experience in WWII. I've encountered all branches of the service, officers and enlisted men, WACS and WAVES, black veterans who fought the world's most racist regimes for a nation that denied them the vote. I've met conscientious objectors whose principles forbade taking up arms even for a just cause, and surgeons who saved lives rather than take them. I've read eyewitness accounts of D-Day, Iwo Jima, Leyte Gulf, the Bulge. I've followed Rosie the Riveter to her factory job; fretted with the wife left behind to dread the telegram the Western Union man might bring; suffered through POW camps and marveled at the indomitable spirit of the survivor. I've learned more than my students ever did.
Occasionally, students have interviewed people who saw the war from another nation's perspectives. A year or two ago, I was surprised to discover a (reluctant) veteran of the Luftwaffe living in our area. I read of the travails of the British, French, Belgian, Thai and Russian home fronts, among other nations.
This semester my students chronicled the experiences of a decoder on Nimitz' staff, a truck mechanic from the Italian campaign, a man who helped liberate a concentration camp, and one of Merrill's Marauders. There was a B-24 gunner who was shot down over France, reported dead and made a heroic escape with the help of the French underground. Several students noted the sudden realization that this old man, when he charged the machine-gun nest or survived the kamikaze attack, was roughly their age. And they invariably wonder if they could have done the same.
More and more the past few years, students have spoken to people who were only kids during the war, their older contemporaries being harder and harder to find and interview. Memories fade, lives end. I know the day is coming when I can no longer give this assignment, but until that day comes, I intend to have my students collect these histories.
Incidentally, I've kept an archive of the local stories and encourage my students to give copies to corresponding libraries or historical societies in other communities. Someone will be glad they did in a hundred years.
Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote of the WW II generation that "at the core, the American citizen soldier knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn't want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful." Of course, vets of other conflicts and the heroes currently in uniform deserve these accolades, too.
But we are the last people who'll be able to listen to this particular generation, which saved the world by putting itself between tyranny's attacks and the freedoms we cherish. If you still know people who served or who experienced the war from the civilian perspective, I encourage you to make time to capture their memories before the opportunity fades irretrievably. You'll be richly rewarded for the effort.<
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