Monday, February 26, 2007

War Memories

by Shirley W. Madany

We were watching John Wukovits, author of “Eisenhower: a Biography”, give a talk on Book TV.(CSpan2). He touched on something which is a sore point with me, and then illustrated how he dealt with it. The point was this. While interviewing an elderly veteran, he was told that no one cared what had happened in those old battles. Therefore, there was nothing to show for their sacrifice. He asked one man what his family thought about him as a veteran of a famous battle. The answer was that his family didn’t even know about his war years. “No one cares about what we did 60 years ago.”

I have always cared intensely for the great loss of fine young men during World War II, because I knew so many of them. Looking at how Europe is now, it irritated me to think that my brother and friends, had all died for what appeared to be a losing cause. They were forgotten it seemed. And no one wanted to be in debt to some unknown airman or soldier.

Wukovits set out to remedy that situation. He was a teacher of 8th grade students and he took his problem right to them. He told them the story of the Battle of Tarawa, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean and one of the fiercest and bloodiest of battles. Then he asked everyone to write something about that Battle and hand it in. He diminished any attempts to be phoney, by saying they would all get an “A” no matter how much or how little they wrote.

The results were moving:

“Every time I look at the flag now, I will remember that story”…… “I’m thankful that people died for me and only me.”….. One girl wrote something beautiful: “Those soldiers did make a difference. I want that veteran to know that. I must accomplish my dream in order to honor those men. By doing this I will be accomplishing their dreams too.”…..Another girl wrote “I know now what sacrifice means. Even if it was a small battle and 21 were killed, that means 42 parents and maybe 100 brothers and sisters.” A boy said: “The school should be telling us more about these battles and you should be teaching us.”

Before ending his talk Wukovits told, what is evidently a familiar story, that Eleanor Roosevelt had a wartime prayer she carried with her and read every day.

Dear Lord,
Lest I continue my complacent way, Help me to remember that somewhere, somehow, out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I then must ask and answer, am I worth dying for?

Watching that TV program stirred up my own memories. It was time to write again about my beloved brother Roland Edison Dann, (1916-1942) a Pilot Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed January 22, 1942. His squadron patrolled the North Sea looking for enemy targets. They were watching for freighters taking iron ore to Nazi Germany. They had to act individually and without air cover, flying low over the deck of the ship. Bad weather helped but exacted its toll also. The project turned out to be so costly in men and planes that it was cancelled. (Fortunately there was no media waiting to pounce on military “mistakes”.) We were all involved in winning World War II—the men in action and all of us back home. Pointing out mistakes would not have helped anyone.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was conceived and quickly built and spread across Canada. Boys, and they were just boys of 18 and 19, would come from Australia, New Zealand and Britain, for training as pilots, navigators, gunners, etc. Two such airports were located a few miles north and south of my home town of 8,000 people. It seemed half the population of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, worked at those airports. I left school and started at the South Airport at 17, finishing up Grade 12 later, when the war was over. Canadian education was superb in those days. Grade 12 was equivalent to First Year University.

I have never agreed with the old saying that time heals. The news that Roly had been killed came as a terrible shock from which we never totally recovered. For her consolation my dear mother wrote the following poem:

Promotion !

In the ranks of the King! Do you see them?
Row on row in their uniforms blue
They have pledged themselves at all costs
To their earthly King to be true.

Yes! He’s there so young and so eager
The child of our heart’s desire;
All aflame with a passion for service
And of Flight he will never tire.

His wings! How proudly he wears them
On that uniform so neat and trim
“All set”, and trained for conflict
“Thumbs up” we are sure to win.

So he left us all full of elation
With a smile so courageous and sweet.
To England he came, how he loved it
His friends and relations to greet.

Stern is their mission and urgent.
These lads from Canada’s coast
In their blood runs the true strain of freedom
For God! King! And country their boast.

One day came the news we had dreaded
“Killed in action” we read with dismay.
And yet! Comes a voice to us—
Listen! “All’s well” I am only away.

Just “promoted to Higher Service”
So we think of him all the while
Though our hearts may be heavy with sorrow
We still can Look up and smile.

We rest in the confident knowledge
Some day we’ll be with him again.
Just at present he’s hidden from vision
But Faith makes the mystery plain.

E.M.D. 1942

Like the girl in Mr. Wukovits class, who felt she must live her life to her utmost to honor those men, I think that has been one of my deepest motivations. Starting at the airport at the very beginning of the war, losing my brother even before I started, and then seeing that by 1944 most of the boys we had met the year before had been killed in bombing raids made an indelible impression on me. Those were somber days. Looking at Britain as she is now I often think, did my brother die for that? At the first opportunity after the war I booked passage on a ship and roamed both England and Scotland. Sadly it included visiting air force cemeteries. Does freedom mean closing the churches, shutting out God and turning to political correctness and compromise? Does it mean providing a breeding ground for terrorist groups?

I had a subtle answer from Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her talk at the American Enterprise Institute recently. Ms. Hirsi Ali, the well known Somali parliamentarian in the Netherlands, has left Europe for America—the last refuge. She used an illustration which caught my imagination and gave me a better perspective on our shortness of memory. Family firms are well run by those who start them, and kept up reasonably well by the second generation, but by the third generation they don’t seem to care and the buildings themselves need repair and renovation. So it is with Freedom. Fighting for it is always going to be part of the agenda. You are constantly needing to take a stand.

At the end of his speech John Wukovits repeated these words:
“A man died for me today. Am I worth dying for? Go home and lead a good life.”