Seventy years ago on the banks of the Elbe River in Germany, 13 days before the end of World War II in Europe, according to the book "Swansong 1945" by the late Walter Kempowski, a U.S. soldier named Joseph Polowsky wrote in his diary:
"At this historic moment of the meeting of nations, all of the soldiers present – ordinary soldiers, Americans and Russians – solemnly swore that they would do everything in their power to prevent such things from ever happening in the world again. We pledged that the nations of the world would and must live in peace. This was our Oath of Elbe.
"It was a very informal, but solemn moment. There were tears in the eyes of most of us. Perhaps a sense of foreboding that things might not be as perfect in the future as we anticipated. We embraced. We swore never to forget."
As we celebrate Veterans Day Wednesday in Harford County, we remember and honor the sacrifices of generation upon generation of our county's men and women, and men and women everywhere, who have given service to their country, in war and peace, in calm and turmoil, in good times and bad.
Like the American GI quoted above, and his Russian comrades in arms, most of these men and women ask only in return that we honor the freedom for which each of them has given a part of themselves to nurture and protect. Unfortunately, being true to them has been a mighty tall order for those who have come afterward.
On the banks of Elbe in April 1945, there was also another war raging thousands of miles to the east, one that would not end for another 15 long weeks and many more thousands of lost lives later. And, as Joseph Polowsky correctly feared, one horrific war would soon beget others, in China, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan – the list, unfortunately, is never-ending.
It's important to remember that those who are called upon to fight wars and protect the land, shores and skies of their nations typically aren't the ones to start them. They finish them, all with their hearts, minds and bodies and, for too many, with their lives.
Concluding his diary entry on Wednesday, April 25, 1945, soldier Joseph Polowsky wrote: "I was so captivated by the event that it took possession of me for the rest of my life. It has colored my life."
All of us should be thankful for peace and to the men and women who give a large measure of themselves to ensure we have it, no matter how fleeting. This consideration should indeed color all our lives.
And, while we actively observe Veterans Day in many places across Harford County in particular, no mere designation of a date on a calendar, set in memory of the end of another long ago war, should serve as our only reminder of the debt of gratitude we owe our country's veterans, living and dead.