LETTER: Wars continue in the memories of survivors

To the editor:

History teachers would do well to share Robert Lee’s Dec. 9 column with students when studying World War II. He capsules America’s position just beyond the war’s outbreak better than typically found in many public school texts. Mr. Lee’s perspective reminds us there are many ways to approach a good understanding of WWII. Let’s consider some.

U.S. military forces engaged in 1,348 days of combat from Dec. 7, 1941 until Japan capitulated on Aug. 15, 1945. During that frame, America sustained a daily average of 216 combat deaths. In the war’s bloodiest year, 1944, that average leaped to 332. Compare that to 1968 when U.S. deaths reached 45 per day of Vietnam’s deadliest year.

Presentations of America’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor, typically illustrate desperate combat; indeed, most of those awards are posthumous. About one MOH was awarded, on average, every three days of WWII. Consider the intensity of combat operations from D-Day, June 6, 1944, until mid-August 1945, when seven MOHs were awarded every 10 days.

After the guns fall silent, wars continue in the memories of survivors. By that reckoning, an American war lingers about nine decades as its veterans dwindle.

Our last WWII GI could be around beyond the next decade, but others carried earlier wars into history’s mists.

A few American Revolution soldiers who helped send the British packing in 1781 lasted to see the nation emerge beyond Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. The last War of 1812 veteran, Hiram Cronk, passed during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in 1905. Owen Edgar was discharged from the navy just after the Mexican War, in 1849, then just missed the Great Depression in 1929.

There is controversy about identities of the Civil War’s last combatants, but they lived into the nuclear age, and to see the gaudy tailfins of 1950s American automobiles.

Frank Buckles was still driving his tractor at age 106. Traveling in Germany, he briefly met Adolf Hitler at a hotel in the 1930s. Civilian business pursuits in the Philippines resulted in Buckles languishing in a Japanese POW camp for three years in WWII. He survived his 1917-18 Army service as an ambulance driver, though, to become America’s last WWI veteran before his death, at 110, on Feb. 27, 2011.

Douglas Smith