Ninth Ward: Remembering the remaining WWII veterans

Around this time, 70 years ago, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Casablanca, over 90,000 German troops at Stalingrad surrendered to the Soviets and U.S. troops were fighting on Guadalcanal. But even without a major anniversary, World War II is on my mind.

My father, all of my uncles, nearly all of their friends and my 90-year-old father-in-law wore the uniform in the 1940s. As a child I heard their stories, climbed on the battleship USS North Carolina and watched TV shows and movies. On a lighter note, I also saw my sister play Bloody Mary in her high school's production of "South Pacific" and watched "McHale's Navy" and "Hogan's Heroes" on TV.

Eventually, I also learned that many relatives, including the siblings or cousins of some older relatives I knew while growing up, were murdered by the Nazis. I was fortunate because my grandparents came to America and their three sons joined the fight from which we all benefited.

Every American was drawn into the war, though surely not in the same way that almost all Europeans, Russians, British, Chinese and Japanese experienced it. With the exceptions of Pearl Harbor, Dutch Harbor, Alaska and perhaps U-boat activities on the East Coast, we were not under attack here. The main impacts at home were economic and social, unless you were an interred Japanese-American. Perhaps every American knew someone in the service.

While our early wars fought here helped shape our nation, WWII transformed the world entirely. There may not be battlefields on our soil such as those at Gettysburg, Fort McHenry or Manassas but the effects of World War II continue to be felt. Many reminders of the war are nearby at the Naval Academy, the memorial across the river, cemeteries, the submarine Torsk or the Coast Guard cutter Taney in Baltimore.

But what specifically spurred me to write this column was a recent edition of this newspaper. There are often obituaries for those veterans, but of the 12 obituaries that day, an astonishingly high number of six of them were WWII veterans. Four others were women who were alive during the war; one had been a factory worker. Two were younger men.

Even with soldiers overseas, there are now fewer than 1.5 million on active duty in all our services. The U.S. population is well over 300 million. In 1940, our population was just over 132 million yet over 16 million served during the war years. Over 291,000 Americans died in battle in WW II. Perhaps 1.5 million of those veterans are still alive but estimates suggest some 850 die every day, or over 310,000 per year. Almost every day, the death of one appears in these pages.

Of those who died that particular day, there was an 88-year-old Severna Park resident who served in the Army Air Corps in Italy and an 89-year-old Annapolitan who served on the carrier USS Yorktown. The 93-year-old Army reserve captain had been a professor of tactics and military science at a military academy. The 94-year-old Army lieutenant from Severna Park fought in France and was awarded the Bronze Star. An 88-year-old man had served in the Marine Corps and the 84-year-old had been in the Army. Those obits reminded me of my Uncle Joe who died last March. He landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and "walked across Europe" as he put it.

Each year their parade contingents get smaller. Let us honor the remaining veterans of those war years who won't be around for long by listening to their stories, reading their books, watching their movies and visiting their memorials.

We must remember that not too long ago this "greatest generation" employed the American "arsenal of democracy" from the home front to join its allies to defeat powerful, war-mongering and tyrannical enemies across two oceans. Surely in 2013 there is some kind of a lesson in there somewhere, with or without an anniversary. We have to continue to find the meaning.