Seventy years ago, a few days after Allied troops landed on the Normandy beaches, a young Army Air Corps lieutenant, sitting up late at night at a small bedside desk in a Quonset hut in southeastern England from which he flew his P-38 Lightning, wrote to his wife of just three months.
Now that the mailman has gathered his crop for the day, and now that the censors are busy with their most up-to-date shredding machines, now that the handlers of the mail are busily storing all they can get into the sodden corners of their dock warehouses, I'll play the stubborn fool by trying to write a letter that may arrive in something less than a month.
By now, it ought to be legal to say that, along with unbelievable numbers of other flying machines, we had front row balcony seats to the preview and grand opening of this season's newest smash hit. Of course, we were a participating audience, but the ever-watchful authorities would surely object if I said just where. Still, the newspaper stories I've read on our performance at least have shown them to be honest critics, so you can just read them, deduct a lot of the drama they add, and have a passable picture of the job we get to earn our living. I'm sure, though, that the censors will agree with me in saying that the D-Day show was a mighty big spectacle.
That letter, written by my father to my mother, pregnant with their first child, is but one of hundreds of war-time missives that my parents kept and had bound in leather in four volumes, each stamped on their spines in gold: "Letters From Jim" and "Letters from Liz."
Every year about this time, I take the books from the shelf and open them, carefully, lovingly, respectfully, and read again of the heart-bond between a man and a woman separated by 5,000 miles in the midst of a global conflict in which both participated -- my father as a fighter pilot in Europe, my mother, also a pilot, in various capacities in support of the Air Corps' pilot training programs in California.
As unique as Liz and Jim are to me, they were not unique to the rest of the world at that juncture in history; 16 million Americans from farms and factories, from big cities and small communities, from colleges and high schools, put aside their domestic labors and studies and flew away or sailed off to save the world. Given the size of our population at the time, about 138 million, that means that more than one in ten Americans was directly involved in the war effort as soldiers, sailors, Marines, or airmen; millions more citizens stoked the home fires of production and filled the pipelines of combat operations.
By June 6, 1944, World War II touched just about every family and community in America. We have not participated so personally in anything like it since, and we have grown apart from the men and women who continue to fight and die in conflicts that require only our tax dollars for support. Bond drives, victory gardens, scrap metal collections, and lifestyle sacrifices that were signatures of the World War II home front are not asked of today's generation.
There are now 314 million Americans, 1.2 million (or about one-third of a percent) of whom are World War II veterans -- the Greatest Generation -- who are leaving us in ever-increasing numbers. My generation -- the Boomers -- is losing more than 500 World War II veteran fathers every day and that count will only increase as the years go on. By 2036, there will be no living veteran of World War II. You have to look hard to find a veteran from that war, and even harder to find a D-Day veteran, but look hard you should. Those brave warriors have stories to tell, not just in letters that may be bound in leather, or tied up in string, but in real human voices that speak to the pride and fear, the honor and duty they felt when they were on that bloody stage in what my dad, from his winged balcony seat 70 years ago, called, 'the big spectacle'.