Defining Battles

April 07, 1995|By F. de SALES MEYERS

It is a little disturbing to read the 50-year commemorative accounts about the great battles of World War II. Not long ago there was the retelling of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, then the Battle of the Bulge and recently the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. All of them are described as ''defining battles,'' those that like Gettysburg illustrate the terrible course of warfare and determine, probably, war's outcome. And, indeed, each of them did, and I have no reluctance to acclaim their importance, as well as to weep for their tragedies.

What disturbs me is the impression given that these great battles were the war, and were fought in a kind of gigantic vacuum, nothing having gone before, and with nothing to come after. A further uneasiness is the sense that if one were not there when the battles occurred, one is, perhaps, diminished, as was said by Shakespeare's Henry V before the historic Battle of Agincourt: ''Gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed that they were not here.''

Your own engagement at the time, somehow without great notice, and unworthy of capital letters, may appear not quite as valorous as those that merit so honored a remembrance.

I can imagine, for instance, some youngster reading of D-Day and asking, were you there? Will it be an embarrassment to say, no, you were not? Will there be a need to explain that you were elsewhere, in the mountains of Italy, perhaps, or the Philippines, or on some suffocatingly isolated island in the South Pacific? And were there battles there? Oh, yes, sometimes. Did men get killed? Indeed they did. Was yours a ''defining battle?'' Well, I don't know. No one ever said so. I guess it was to me, though.

There are few identifiers for all those who were not at the events now in commemoration, no pictures of flag raisings on the mountain -- nothing at all like that, done for glorious memory's sake -- just unheralded misery and fear and death. That's all.

Once in Australia I met an Englishman who was a veteran of World War II. When I asked him what his branch of service had been, he said the Royal Air Force. Well, of course, my immediate reaction was to remember the ''identifiers'' of that service, the Spitfires and the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill and all that about never had so many owed so much to so few. I assumed, obviously, that he had certainly been engaged in that defining battle of World War II.

When he responded I knew at once that I had made a grievous and deeply shameful mistake. No, he said, quietly, and with a little self-effacing laugh, he had not been there. I learned, then, that he had been at Singapore, was captured there by the Japanese and had spent almost the entire war in a horribly humiliating prisoner-of-war jungle camp.

For all the ''defining battles'' of World War II he had been absent. There were no visible identifiers to what he had experienced.

There were many notable and significant naval battles during the Pacific War. They have their identifying names -- Pearl Harbor, of course, Coral Sea, Midway and others, all with battleships and aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, thousands of combatants, and men going down on sinking ships, heroic engagements absolutely, if you were there. I was not.

There was nothing at all like that in my own experience aboard a combat submarine in Southeast Asia waters those years. There was just our boat, 90-some men and a thousand or more miles beyond friends or protectors, with only the enemy above.

How do you commemorate that? How do you memorialize a spot of water in the South China Sea?

So, now and then, when I read of the ceremonies honoring and recalling those remarkable events with the capital letters, I think of that Englishman. I wonder, does he still live? Is he back there somewhere in the crowds, standing quietly, not seated up there with the glittering medal holders and the strategists of those battles, not up there with the winners, and, yes, sometimes, there also the losers?

What is he thinking, I wonder, after all the speakers are silent and the bands are no longer playing?

F. de Sales Meyers writes from Reisterstown.

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