The sacrifices made by my parents and their contemporaries during World War II
I knew my father and my uncles had done something hard and noble during the war — something so difficult, apparently, that they didn't like to remember or talk about it very much. While I couldn't fully understand the sacrifice they had made, I was proud they had been willing to do it for all the rest of us. I can remember strapping on the Japanese bayonet my father had been given by a fellow officer from a stockade in Okinawa and marching around singing "The Marine's Hymn" at the top of my lungs. I didn't really understand the meaning or implications of the words. I can remember playing war with friends, hiding in the tall weeds with our broomstick rifles, heroically defending against the imaginary enemy. There was war in Korea. Perhaps we too would face war when we were actually old enough to fight.
Then I grew up. Then came Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. The issues were not clear-cut. Friends from high school and from my college classes died in Vietnam. Where was good and bad? Who was right and who was wrong about the purpose of those wars? Was there really a purpose? I remember a line from a serious moment in the old "MASH" TV series: the first rule of war is that young men die. Is there truly no alternative to this? Can we as human beings with a common heritage really find no better way to resolve our problems?
Through the decades since I began to wonder about what my father and uncles did "over there" during the war, one issue has remained constant and clear-cut for me: Those willing to put themselves in harm's way in the fighting forces of our country are deserving of all the honor and respect we can give them.
I recently read a book we gave to my mother, "The Greatest Generation." It was about her generation, but figuratively speaking, I knew some of the people Tom Brokaw spotlighted in that book. I knew them well. I wish I had the opportunity to listen to some of my uncles later in life, when they finally could talk about what they did and what they saw in the war. Among my mother's papers there is a one-page account apparently dictated by her brother who was in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed. Relying on memory decades later, he said:
"On Dec. 7, 1941, we were anchored about 100 feet away from the USS Utah. ... (A plane) came in and pulled up just over our stern cable. He waved at me and I waved at him, just before he sunk the Utah. The next plane sunk the cruiser behind the Utah. The officer of the deck came running down the side of the ship (U.S.S. Alwyn) and told me to take the cruise boat and go get the captain. I got over on the end of Ford Island between Ford Island and the Whitney when the Arizona blew up. ... I took the cover of the seat from the boat I was in and put it over my head for protection. I ran along battleship row while they were being sunk."
I can understand why it was difficult for him, until many years afterward, to talk about some of the things he saw.
War is evil. War is failure of the human spirit on a very grand scale. It exacts a heavy toll on those who are forced to fight. Some of them it destroys, even though they still live. I have seen Auschwitz, with its undeniable evidence of what was done there. Still, I cannot comprehend how torture and murder could become mere procedures to be dutifully recorded for the purposes of study. How can the human spirit become so warped?
I have known people who were forced to deal with the horrors of war in Korea and Vietnam and Iraq, yet who, like many of that "greatest generation," are gentle souls living lives of service to others. My uncles were such men. The few things I have that my father wrote indicate he was such a man.
What makes the difference?
At some level I think the people I know chose to be more than their experiences in the war might have made them. They chose to raise responsible, caring children. They chose to give back to their communities. They chose to go on giving back to the country they had already served so well.
In the early 1950s when I was still a boy, my mother chose to quit her secure job and start at BYU as a 31-year-old freshman to study something that would help her serve others. During my early years, I watched as she made her way in a world where women did not have many of the legal protections they now enjoy. (Why, for example, did my own mother have to be declared my legal guardian when my father was gone?) In some sense she felt in her studies that she was continuing what my father had started and been unable to finish. After her graduation in 1957, she built a career as a counselor and teacher, at the high school, then college level. From her I learned the value of pursuing dreams — and I learned that it was my privilege to choose what dreams I would pursue. Their sacrifices had made this possible for me.
Even with the hindsight of maturity and the lessons of the wars in my lifetime, I may never fully understand the sacrifices made by my parents and their contemporaries. But I can never forget what their generation did for ours. Because of them, we were able to grow up with opportunity that was not available to much of the rest of the world. I will always love and respect them for the examples they set. They willingly served when their country called, and afterward, they kept the will to serve others, even though history might never record what they did as individuals.
Don Searle Jr. spent 27 years as an editor and managing editor for the LDS Church's Ensign magazine. He has also worked for the Deseret News and taught journalism at BYU.
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