Scene #1: The morning of December 16, 1944. A lonely outpost on the Belgian frontier.
In subzero temperatures, the last German counteroffensive of World War II had begun. Nineteen thousand American lives would be lost in the Battle of the Bulge. “Hell came in like a freight train. I heard an explosion and went back to where my friend was. His legs were blown off-he bled to death in my arms.” The average age of the American “replacement” soldier? 19.
Scene #2: Memorial Day, sixty-plus years later. In a small town in the United States, it is a day off from work or school and it is the unofficial start to the busy summer season. We sit in our lawn chairs, we chat with neighbors and sip our drinks when the gentlemen with the flag march past.
The holiday known originally as “Decoration Day” originated at the end of the Civil War when a general order was issued designating May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” When Congress passed a law formally recognizing the last Monday in May as the day of national celebration, we effectively got our three-day weekend and our de facto beginning of summer.
Of the sixteen million American men and women who served in WWII, a half million died on the field of conflict. In 2007, over 1200 veterans of World War II quietly slip away every day. The national memory of the war that did more than any other event in the last century to shape the history of the American nation is dying with them. Incredibly, it comes as a shock to most Americans today that the “Battle of the Bulge” didn’t originate as a weight-loss term.
In the high school where I teach, I have been inviting veterans to my classroom to share their experiences with our students. As their numbers dwindled, I smartened up, bought a camera, and began to record their stories. We’ve spoken at length with a pilot forced to bail out at 28,000 feet of his flaming B-17 bomber, only to watch crew members die in the subsequent explosion and then be taken prisoner himself. We have had conversations with POWs who survived forced marches in brutal weather, and with Jewish infantrymen who were among the first to liberate the death camp at Dachau. We have met men who were handcuffed to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and who were assigned to suicide watch guard shifts there after fighting their way across Germany. We can imagine what it was like to sail eerily into Pearl Harbor 36 hours after the Japanese attack and see no lights except the USS Arizona still blazing with the bodies of hundreds of Americans entombed in it. We are with the torpedo bomber pilot as he takes off from the flight deck of the carrier USS Yorktown during the epic battle of Midway, and is forced to land on the deck of another carrier as the Yorktown burns and later slides to the bottom of the sea. We intently listen to a blind Marine describe what it was like to lose his eyesight fifty-nine years to the day of his being struck by mortar fragments, not once, but twice in the same day at Okinawa (and he told us that ” the hardest part was telling my mother”). Across a kitchen table I have discussions with other veterans, including a former 17 year old describing what it was like to share a foxhole with a headless fellow US Marine on Iwo Jima. My students and I are just “one person away” from the shock of Pearl Harbor, the chaos at Omaha Beach and the Huertgen Forest, the horrors of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Peleliu Island.
Sixty-plus years ago these men and women saved the world. I think about this: by the time my teaching career ends in 10 or 15 years, almost all of the survivors will be gone.
It’s not enough that I have an interest in their stories. I have long looked out into a sea of faces, some students mildly interested in what I have to say, but many others displaying a quiet and disturbing apathy about the past. What is infinitely reassuring and comforting to me, however, is that they all seem to have a genuine interest in a “real” connection with the past, with a person who becomes the ultimate source, because he or she was there.
These men and women have helped to spark students’ interest in finding out more about our nation’s past and the role of the individual in shaping it. On our website we have worked to weave the stories of our community’s sacrifices into the fabric of our national history. And that, to me, is what teaching history should be all about. After all, if we allow ourselves to forget about the teenager who bled to death in his buddy’s arms, if we overlook the sacrifices it took to make this nation strong and proud, we may as well forget everything else. Where will we be when there is nothing important about our past to remember? The answer is found in simple study of any other great civilization in history that allowed the collective memory of the past that once bound them together to be trivialized and blurred, to be eroded away and forgotten-
They’re not here anymore. This Memorial Day,
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