THEY'RE GETTING up there in years, the World War II vets. But they're still my choice as this century's most remarkable generation of men.
Most came of age in the Great Depression. Because of hard times everywhere, men who had the brains to be physicists or engineers were happy to get jobs as apprentice toolmakers or carpenters. Or digging ditches, if that's all there was.
Then they won the biggest, bloodiest war in the history of this planet. And when it was over, they came back and went right to work making this country the most powerful industrial and economic force in the world.
Recently I wrote about how a few of them felt about the homecoming hoopla that followed the abrupt ending of the Gulf war. They were generally amused when they compared the TV coverage of festive airport reunion scenes with their own quiet arrivals.
That column brought a small flood of mail from other WW II vets, sharing their memories. None begrudge the Gulf war troops their due. But some are skeptical about flag-waving politicians; others think the word "hero" is being tossed around too freely; and most have wry, amused memories of their own homecomings.
So I thought I'd share some of their views.
An Indiana man, who preferred that his name not be used, said: "I was in the Pacific for three years. Took part in the fight for Iwo and some other islands. Came home on a stinking ship and hot bus. My mom made me dinner. Now a town near where I live is planning a big parade for one of the local boys who was in the desert. He was there three months and they sent him home because he has a kidney infection. Hey, come on!"
A physician, David Berner, of Condon, Mont., took note of a proposal by a congressman that all Gulf war troops be given a $10,000 bonus. Berner fired off a letter to the congressman and sent me a copy.
"As a combat infantryman (New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Luzon), I've decided to join you in the orgy of euphoria engulfing the nation. Admittedly, this war was a pushover and most of the troops saw no combat, experienced little danger, and weren't 'over there' very long, as wars go, but that shouldn't detract from their all being 'heroes' in the eyes of the multitudes. Some may feel that the genuine heroes of the world are belittled by such a mass anointment, but they're obviously soreheads.
"Anyway, your idea to break the bank on behalf of the Gulf vets should logically apply to us who served before -- generally longer, bloodier and with less media and public adoration. Your idea for a $10,000 bonus sounds swell, and I would like mine in one lump sum -- with interest, of course, dating from December 1945. Furthermore, though I witnessed ample gore and brutality in my two years overseas, I haven't yet needed 'readjustment counseling,' which I know is obligatory for all inconveniences. But I'd like Congress to send me a lot of money for the counseling I'll doubtless need in my old age.
"I confess that I would be embarrassed to accept this money. You see, I never really thought of myself as a hero. I did think of myself as just another in that endless series of poor slobs paying the repetitive penalty for failure of national or tribal leaders.
"However, I heartily join the bandwagon. I will accept your payola, I'm practicing a hero's swagger, and I'm eagerly looking forward to some sort of maladjustment."
Agree or disagree, you have to concede that Doc Berner knows how to write a zinger.
Jacquelyn Jefferson, of Hinsdale, Ill., says of her husband: "He remembers only one conversation after his return from the war. He met a close friend in a neighborhood bar and asked him where he'd served. The friend told him and asked the same question, adding: 'Did you see any [gore]?' My husband said: 'Yeah, some. How about you?' The friend said, 'Yeah, me, too.'" And that was the total extent of his discussion of his war experiences."
That's another quality I've seen of the WW II generation. They were doers, not talkers.
Another homecoming memory, from David Dander, of Tiffin, Ohio: "Had four and a half years, most of it in the Pacific. Coming back, it was 21 days on a troop ship. Then five days on a troop train to New Jersey. Then a train to Pittsburgh. My older brother, who survived his destroyer being blown up on D-Day, picked me up at the train station at 2 a.m. But that was OK. I hate parades, anyway."
Ken Morris, of Council Bluffs, Iowa: "Thank goodness the desert hTC war was over quickly and with few losses. But all this euphoria has a movie atmosphere. I was in WW II and Korea. Two of my brothers were killed in WW II and buried at sea. They called it shark feeding. I don't think some of the people putting up yellow ribbons and waving flags could tell you much about the Bataan Death March or Iwo Jima. I don't think they know about the reality of war and how bad it can really be."
Maybe Jim Hill, of Arkansas, sums up the feelings of his generation best: "I was attached to Patton's Third Army. I seldom talk about the war, the freezing days and nights, the fatigue, the fear, the dirt, mud and the smell of dead bodies. There was no big welcome for us guys. The welcome was in our hearts, our thankfulness for being back and alive. Our welcome was seen in the smiling, joyous faces of our parents, brothers, sisters and sweethearts or wives. We didn't need parades."
Maybe Jim Hill didn't need parades. But today's politicians surely do.