Learning from World War II Veterans

Many older people who served in World War II came from small, homogeneous communities. They were then suddenly thrown together with  people all over the country. Once in the service, they experienced danger and hardship that is difficult to imagine. Although these experiences are shared by service men and women today, in the elders’ generation, millions of men experienced combat, shaping their worldviews. They were some of the most inspiring interviewees in 30 Lessons for Living.

We have come to a point in time, however, where those who participated in World War II generation will soon be gone. Take a look at this chart:

In five years, only a few hundred thousand of those who risked their lives so bravely will be left with us. For this reason, I believe we need to actively engage the WWII veterans now, asking them for the lessons they learned from their experiences.

Here’s an example from the Legacy Project. Larry, 89, describes his lessons for getting along with others, gained from his service in WW II:

When I went into the service, I was a young boy from Vermont.  A little hick town. And I lived on the right side of the tracks, okay?  My whole family was well-known throughout town, well-respected and everything.  I got into the Navy and I was just another punk.  And I learned how to get along with people.  And when I got out of the service, people would say to me, “Oh, boy am I glad I’m out of the service.” And I said, “I’ll tell you something:  I learned how to get along with people for one thing.”  That was the biggest lesson that has helped me all through life. Because you’re cramped in and everything like that.  Living aboard ship.  And you’ve got to get along with people, because you have no choice.  And these are people that you never saw before. 

I learned to accept mankind until they prove me wrong.  I don’t care who you are, what you are, how you are, you’re fine with me until you prove the opposite.  I get along with everybody, and that – I think the service had something to do with that. That’s what you need at work: to be sociable and to get along with the people you are working with.

Zach Danko, 87, also pointed to WW II as broadening his understanding of others:

I served in World War II. You traveled the world and you bumped into people that were quite different. I was in the Pacific, so I was talking to natives in New Guinea. When I was younger, I would have shied away from them. You couldn’t speak the language, number one. Everything was sort of hand movement – you try to describe what you’re trying to say. But they were the most beautiful people in the world, what they did for us. So you look back at that, and it teaches you things. It’s a big world.

So let’s make sure we learn all we can from our WW II veterans – before we lose the chance!

3 thoughts on “Learning from World War II Veterans

  1. Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers” are well-deserved recognition of the GIs who landed on Omaha Beach and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

    Let us also remember all the others who served. World War II was truly that – a world war – fought in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the air, on the ground, on and below the sea. Army, Air Corp, Navy, Marines, Merchant Marine and Coast Guard. Anzio, Bataan, Colmar Pocket, Guadalcanal, Hurtgen Forest, Iwo Jima, Midway, Okinawa, Anzio, Rome, Vosges Mountains, The Bulge … naming all the battles would exceed the limits of this space.

    Over the past decade I have had the opportunity of meeting and interviewing scores of World War II combat veterans. I consider each a hero. None agrees with me. “I’m no hero. I just did my job. The heroes are over there under little white crosses.” These men are now well into their 80s. Most are grandfathers. Some are great-grandfathers. Virtually all are married fifty-plus years.

    They are a unique and remarkable generation in American history. As children, their character and shared sense of family sacrifice was wrought in the blast furnace of the Great Depression. On December 7th, 1941 they were eighteen and nineteen year-olds, fully committed to sacrificing their lives and bodies for their family, buddies and country. And they did. By the thousands … tens of thousands … hundreds of thousands. We may never see their type of patriotism again.

    The Congressional Medal of Honor is our ultimate symbol of heroism. During World War II, 432 brave and gallant men were awarded the Medal. If those men had not been born, or had not served, we would have still been victorious. But without the twelve million men and women in uniform, we would not have won. To me, every GI in harms way or in the line of enemy fire was a hero. They saved the world.

    Their service, sacrifice and bravery bought and paid for the freedom we enjoy every day of our lives. For this we should be eternally grateful and profoundly indebted. These veterans are in each and every community across this nation. Most are easy to spot. They wear caps with their branch or unit names and designations. Their license plates indicate: Pearl Harbor Survivor – Purple Heart – POW – Combat Infantryman Badge – Air Force Bomber Group and other references to their service.

    Those that came home went on with their lives. Some carried the physical and emotional scars of war. Their numbers are dwindling all too quickly. More than a thousand leave us each day. Let us show them our respect and gratitude in their twilight years. When you spot a veteran, shake his hand and thank him for his service. It will be an experience neither of you will ever forget. Let us go a little bit out of our way and do them a favor, give them a lift, shovel their walkway.

    Remember this – when it counted the most, they went to Hell and back for us.

  2. Was just nine when the war ended, but have been a student of that era because of the sacrafices the people made to fight for what is right. I love the generations that have come since, but they have no concept of what the great generation (both male and female here and with the allies) went through to build today’s world flawed as it is. Just imagine what we would be living with if they had not stepped up.

  3. I was 5 yrs. old in December 1941 and 10 years old when it ended. I remember the sacrifices families made so the these young men could ‘do their jobs” as they say. My mother had ration stamps. I shopped with my mother and we had less meat and sugar. Our family never complained about any of the shortages always knowing that these products and many others were to help our country and our soldiers.

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