"Whether they served on the front lines or the home front, these men and women faced sacrifices that are difficult for us even to contemplate."


Winter/Spring 2002

In praise of World War II veterans

by Ronald J. Rychlak ’80

Their childhood was dominated by the Great Depression. They went off to fight the war that saved the world for Democracy, and they came home to build America. They gave their children what they themselves had missed in their childhood, and they watched those children reject their ways. Those who are left have seen the world turn upside down and—just maybe—start heading back in their direction. They are the veterans of World War II.

I spent the better part of the last decade working on a book about WWII. Despite the class that I took at Wabash from Professor Barnes (who graciously reviewed a very early and very bad copy of my manuscript), I did not know much about the causes, battles, and personalities of the war. So I spent lots of time reading books, watching documentaries, and talking to people who actually were in the war. That was my favorite part of the research.

These are the people who defeated Hitler. Their testimony is a living link to the most dramatic events of the 20th Century. The only difficulty is getting them to open up. WWII vets seem rarely to discuss their exploits. Maybe it is because they saw so much blood and lost so many friends. About the only time you can count on them to tell their stories is when they talk to one another, but it is well worth the effort to listen in.

They all have stories of heroics, if not of their own then of their close friends. Some stories are sad, others funny, but all of them are worth hearing. It is also worth seeing the faces of these now elderly heroes light up as they tell their stories. If beauty is to be found in any human face, it is in these. If any people are worthy of praise, it is them.

Many of the stories that I heard came from people I had known for many years. An insurance man fought in Germany. A lady at church was a military nurse. A law professor was at Iwo Jima. The former mayor of our town fought in Europe, and my wife’s uncle was sent to Pearl Harbor (in fact, she had five uncles who were all in the war at the same time). I had known these people in their civilian roles, but when I heard their stories, they took on a whole new heroic stature.

My father-in-law signed up right out of high school and was assigned to the infantry. After basic training, he shipped off to Europe. There, he walked “point,” in front of a tank as his squad made its way into Germany. He frequently came under fire, and several of his buddies were killed. As he puts it, he fired his rifle in the general direction of the enemy several times, but he doesn’t know whether he hit anyone. Late in the war he was leading his squad into a small German town. Suddenly a Nazi soldier popped up from behind a stone wall. He had a machine gun aimed “right down our gut.” Fortunately, the German put his hands in the air to surrender, as did several others who materialized from buildings all around the town. “When that guy stood up and I realized what could have happened, it scared the liver out of me. I’m sure all of us were scared at one time or another, probably many times.”

Despite the fear and the losses, my father-in-law’s memories are not all bad. He talks about finding and eating a cake, the men giving each other bad haircuts, trying to stay warm in the tank’s exhaust fumes, a rare hot shower, big drinkers, mean drunks, bad meals, and occasional good ones. When the war ended he got separated from his troop and spent some time traveling around Europe. It was a big adventure for a Mississippi boy.

Whether they served on the front lines or the home front, these men and women faced sacrifices that are difficult for us even to contemplate. They did their duty, won the war, and built a nation. I am grateful for what they did and am fortunate to have met so many of them. The only sad thing is how few of them remain.

Ronald Rychlak is Associate Dean and a professor at the University of Mississippi Law Center. His book Hitler, the War, and the Pope was published in 2000.

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