Editor's note: This is the first of two parts. The second will be published on Nov. 18.
Veteran: A person who has served in the military or who is serving in the armed forces and has direct exposure to acts of military conflicts.
They were only teenagers, some 17, 18, and 19 years old. Some were just days out of high school, some never completed high school because supporting the family took priority. For some, joining the military meant doing their duty not only to their country, but also to their families, so that they could do well in school, get married, have children, buy homes all of that meant they could do just a little better than their parents. These young people went to the local recruiter or whoever met them at the recruiting building, and were happy to find out that they were accepted, they were normal, they were fit to serve, they were doing their part to be productive and beneficial members of their society.
They signed a list of papers, 50 or so without even reading a sentence. They agreed to what they had been told and then they went home to say their goodbyes. They looked at their bedrooms, wondering if what they were doing was right, if what they were doing would make a difference, and wondering what life would be like for their families and friends if for any reason they did not return home again. They gathered with their family and friends with brave smiles on their faces, knowing that everyone was holding back tears, fearing the worst.
They read papers describing the world they were about to join, the madness and the killing, the torture, always wondering what they could do if they were put in a position to stop it.
The first group of recruits could only read papers they had no television or even radio, they believed what they read. It was their country, they would board a ship and sail into harm's way. In May 1915, the country was informed that a civilian ship, the Lusitania, had been sunk and the public feared that another country was coming to take over the United States. Those soldiers were called "doughboys." They went over to Europe and they weren't coming back until World War I was over.
They fought the war in trenches, at times only advancing inches each day. They witnessed things that they had never seen or heard of back home, the flying machines, the wireless radio, things that were invented only for the purpose of killing. Finally, though, the last shot was fired, World War I had ended, and the doughboys were coming home. Little did they know at that time that about 20 years later the world would once again be plagued by nations at war.
Those soldiers came home, married, raised families, restarted their lives. They watched their children grow up in a free country. They had no idea that the boys and girls they were raising would only grow up to go to war some day soon, to do it again, this time as the children of the doughboys that fought before them.
They signed their papers just as their fathers did during the first World War. They signed those papers because their country was in need of having its morals, honor and beliefs defended. All had been going well for these sons and daughters of those doughboys that made it through the trenches and came home. The U.S. had been doing its best to stay out of the second World War the decorations on the graves of World War I's fallen heroes a terrible reminder of the price that war demanded: lives.
But less than 25 years after the peace treaty of World War I was signed, the fog and stench of another war was in the wind. It grew larger and larger as many Americans watched family members living in Europe being tormented, and each day saw more and more people losing their lives.
Other parts of the world were already in turmoil when we, too, got a terrible shock. In the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, radios and newspapers informed our country that war had again come knocking on our own door. A United States Naval Station in the Hawaiian Islands was deliberately attacked - a place called Pearl Harbor was bombed and our military base in the Philippines was also under attack. Our country had to get involved, and the children of those World War I doughboys rose to the occasion. A war with the empire of Japan had started, and within three days our country found itself at war with another country: Germany. We realized we were in serious trouble; we were now in a two-front war. We had a few ships and some planes, but we were at war in two oceans. We only had three combat-ready divisions, and our German enemies had 233 combat-ready divisions. We were backed into a corner.
As their fathers did in our first war, so too did their children. Recruit stations were packed lines as long as four football fields were common. Those young recruits were all ready to do whatever was needed. They came from farms, small towns, big cities.
They came from the mountains and from the sunny beaches. Some came from towns where the nearest bodies of water were 100 miles away, and these men and women received duty on ships. Some had never seen a plane and took jobs jumping from them. Some never left home and woke up on the other side of the world. Many were from large families, many were only children.
This new war, called World War II, was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. The new soldiers worked together as a team, and each depended on the person next to him or her. They had no time table, there was no day circled on a calendar that would guarantee the last shot fired. The country was united and people back home did their duty, rationing, women taking on men's work and sacrificing. The war saw boys from Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945 with temperatures plummeting below zero degrees. The war saw school teachers commanding infantry units, cooks manning machine guns, and all Americans, regardless of hometown or profession, fighting together for their flag and county.
World War II was won by the children of World War I soldiers. Its end again brought peace for the entire world, but throughout the war's bloody battles, more than 400,000 Americans paid the ultimate price. This tally of casualties initially reached the thousands with Pearl Harbor, the attack claiming over two thousand Americans, and the numbered dead grew with more losses in the Philippines, the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Okinawa battles which, had they been lost, would have changed the world from what it is today. The invention of the Atomic Bomb brought this terrible war and its devastating list of casualties to an end, but for the surviving U.S. soldiers, the struggles weren't over.
These combat-weary veterans all came home to a different America. The graveyards were full; the military hospitals were overcrowded.
The war had been brought home daily with the newspaper stories and radio coverage. American citizens had tracked the progress of the war on a daily basis, and the entire country knew what these brave Americans had been through in defense of our great nation.
These men and women came home, returned to work, married, and started to raise families. This group was a little different from that of their parents'. Those who had witnessed war were known to be the silent ones; there were no war stories, no talk of heroes. The majority of the country felt that the heroes were in the cemeteries. Those who talked of war really didn't know about it and those who really knew of war never talked.
For those who had enough of war and suffering, home was the place to be. New cities were popping up all over, new homes were being built, and most veterans were settling in and raising families. We set aside a day for those we lost, calling it Memorial Day, and to those who made it home, we dedicated Veterans Day. These two days were the only days for them.
Post-war America was a time to start over again. Radio was bigger and there was talk of an invention called the "television," a box in which one could see the world, get news, and enjoy life. The military was trimming down; there was no need for all that war equipment. Life was good then, and the new group of those who served would later on be referred to as the Greatest Generation.
NEXT?WEEK: Part two.