Old Soldiers Never Die . . .
The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 6, Number 8
We were there as volunteers, to help the elderly visitors maneuver the shuttles, the tourist sites, and the subway system. Many of us volunteered because we knew this was an historic occasion. And, those of us familiar with the Civil War, were struck by the similarities between the World War II Greatest Generation Reunion held this Memorial Day on the National Mall in Washington DC, and the 1913 Gettysburg Civil War 50 Year Reunion, held just 90 miles away and more than 90 years ago.
At both events, thousands of war veterans came together to remember what they did a generation before. At both, the honorees were old men in old uniforms, which amazingly still fit, decorated with dozens of medals. Just ask, and they would tell you the story behind each one. You didn't even have to ask.
Just like the Gettysburg Reunion, we learned that many who joined the World War II army were farm boys. It was the first time they owned clothes that hadn't belonged to someone else. It was the first time they ate food they didn't kill or raise themselves. Most of it came out of cans, a Civil War innovation that began with beans and Borden's milk. For a few, it was the first time they owned shoes. And for most, it was the first time they traveled away from home. As a result, they were changed forever.
There were women at both reunions, too, and not just the wives of veterans. The women talked about how the families managed things at home without the men; or, how they cared for the men after the battles; or, how they visited them in the field to bring coffee and comfort and news from home.
Like the Gettysburg reunion, the men didn't talk much about the fighting. And we didn't ask. We felt it somehow, that that was the part they remembered most, but would most like to forget. We all knew about it, whether it was 1862 or 1942. About being ordered to run through a hail of bullets to take a position on a beach or a hill or in a farmhouse. These experiences caused nightmares and fractured lives. They didn't have a name for it then, but they do now. All veterans from all wars suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome to some degree. That's one reason why they didn't talk about comrades being killed right next to them, or seeing bodies blown apart, or faces forever disfigured. They remember it all, but they didn't talk about that, at least, not with us. For this, at this recent reunion, anyway, they went into the biggest tent of all, Reunion Hall. There, they left notes for others--or read the notes left by others--hoping to make contact with someone who was there when they were there, someone who saw what they saw, someone they could talk to who would truly understand.
Although it was more than 90 years between the two reunions, the technology was similar. Like the earlier reunion, we have photographs and movies showing bearded veterans shaking hands. But instead of just hazy movies and black and white photos, the 2004 World War II Dedication Reunion is documented with hundreds of thousands of photographs and videos in living color. Professional television programs and satellite feeds broadcast the events worldwide, in real-time. In addition, there are countless family photos and videos taken by children and grandchildren to document the events honoring their parents and grandparents.
For the World War II veterans, it was a cheerful celebration to honor their youth, their hardships, and their contributions. Without them, the world would be a very different place. For the over 1000 World War II volunteers, it was a unique experience. One volunteer said what we all felt."Being there, talking to them and hearing their stories, was the most meaningful thing I ever did."