Jay Evensen: On Memorial Day, look beyond the fog of war

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Looking back 70 years with the sure knowledge that allied forces defeated the Nazis, it's hard to feel the heart-pounding fear of that day as crews loaded their B-17s, revved their engines, took their places behind guns or as navigators or pilots, walked the narrow catwalk above bomb bays and wondered if they had safely touched ground for the last time.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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The fog of war often clouds our senses.

On Aug. 17, 1943, Nazi forces shot down 60 American B-17 "flying fortresses" during raids on Regensburg and Schweinfurt, Germany.

It was soon understood that the raid, at least on Schweinfurt, which was supposed to cripple the Germans' aircraft manufacturing plants, had been a failure, and that many of the planes that made it home were crippled beyond repair. Also, 552 crewmen were listed as missing, with about half of them ending up as prisoners of war.

The German plants suffered heavy damage, but surpluses in other parts of the country allowed them to make up the difference in manufacturing.

Looking back 70 years with the sure knowledge that allied forces defeated the Nazis, it's hard to feel the heart-pounding fear of that day as crews loaded their B-17s, revved their engines, took their places behind guns or as navigators or pilots, walked the narrow catwalk above bomb bays and wondered if they had safely touched ground for the last time.

I didn't think about that a week ago as I was mowing my lawn and watched a B-17 fly overhead, its roar momentarily cutting through the roar of the mower. But I did a few hours later when I found it parked at Salt Lake Airport No. 2 and took a tour with my family.

Brought to Utah by the Liberty Foundation, the plane was decorated with the markings of the Memphis Belle, complete with pinup girl, swastikas and bombs painted on its sides to represent kills. In reality it was a plane built near the end of the war, destined never to see action but decorated years later to represent the Memphis Belle in a movie.

But that hardly mattered.

Among the large crowd taking tours that day were several aging veterans who worked in and around such aircraft when the free world depended on them and the bravery of their crews.

Memorial Day offers Americans a chance to officially pause and remember such sacrifices, although I am guessing not many do. We owe that luxury to those who never made it home from Schweinfurt and other battlefields through the years.

But we owe them more than that.

If, as often is said, freedom comes at a price each generation must pay, how are we contributing our installment? Do we use the credit card of indifference, or are we building equity through good citizenship and an honest political involvement that includes respect for elected office, even if held by someone of the opposite party?

The armed forces today are voluntary, so it is too easy to overlook the sacrifices they make on our behalf. But war is not the only theater that counts in the long struggle for freedom, nor is it the only place where fog plays a role.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, author Mark Bowden recounts how that fog affected the way Abraham Lincoln was seen in his day. Members of his own party called him, "timid, vacillating and inefficient," "not equal to the occasion," or, worse, "an idiot" and "the original gorilla."

Contemporary critics and partisanship can cloud things so badly it takes years of winds to clear the air.

That was true with the original Memphis Belle, the only B-17 to complete 25 missions without losing a crew member, despite absorbing many shots and having her engines blown out. She was allowed to sit in the National Guard Armory for more than 30 years, virtually stripped clean by vandals and degraded by the elements. Today the plane is scheduled for restoration and display at a museum.

Sometimes, time is the only thing that brings true focus to the value of a thing, an event or a person.

Or, as Bowden wrote of Lincoln: "Imagine all those critical voices from the 19th century as talking heads on cable television. Imagine the snap judgments, the slurs and put-downs that beset Lincoln magnified a million times over on social media. How many of us, in that din, would hear him clearly?"

How many, on this Memorial Day weekend, can see and hear clearly the world around us, free from fog?

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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