Today is the 70th anniversary of V.E. Day, the day WWII ended in Europe. A day of the most profoundly euphoric and bittersweet jubilation. Hitler had been defeated. A horrifying evil had been stopped. There was dancing and rejoicing, bells peeling, all at once across a dozen freed nations. Yet I include the adjective bittersweet because liberation came at such a cost—millions dead, so many young people sacrificed in terrifying battles.
Writing about this generation has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. I am so honored to have been given the chance to spread the word about their teeth-gritted, matter-of-fact courage, their capacity for compassion within all the carnage of that war, their hopes and belief in the possibility for a better world. They didn’t just talk about it. They made it happen.
So few of them are still with us. If you know a WWII veteran, be sure to give him or her a hug or a call today and a thank-you.
I’ve often said that writing about this time period and these people is easy, the real-life stories are so heartbreaking or inspiring. Today seems the right time to share an anecdote that I had to edit out of the afterword to ACROSS A WAR-TOSSED SEA for space. It’s from The Road to Victory, a two-volume work compiled in the 1940s detailing the comings and goings of the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation—the Virginia wharfs from which thousands upon thousands of our servicemen left to fight. And then came home.
The passage describes the operators and a bank of telephone booths that awaited returning veterans. Remember this is a world without cell phones, skyping, or email:
“A kid in a soiled O.D. uniform comes out of the barracks-like building, and he’s bawling. He is big, husky—and tough. Anyone can see that. He went through the terrors of assault landings, foxholes, and bombings; but here today, he cried.
For that drab structure houses Telephone Exchange X—a secret center…from which pours day and night an endless stream of impassioned and delighted speech to parents and wives and sweethearts in every part of the United States….
In it now are GI’s like the kid, each gripping a telephone with terrific intensity, and talking, talking—making their first calls home after landing on American soil. And like him, they find it almost too much to take—the sheer joy of hearing the familiar voices, of saying at last, ‘Hello, Mom! Sure it’s me. I’m back’….(they) emerge slightly punch drunk, if not red-eyed.
…The switchboard girls are witness to all this, and sometimes a little choked up themselves. But none of that comes through to those at the other end of the wire. All you hear is a calm ‘Is this Mrs. William Smith? We have a collect call from Corporal John Smith. Will you accept the charges?’
There’s a gasp and then a breathless, ‘Where is he? Where is he calling from?’
The regulation answer is a formal: ‘Due to military regulations we are not permitted to give you that information.’ Then perhaps because they are human, too, the girls weaken and say, ‘It is not an overseas call, madam,’ and with that the call goes through.
Nine out of ten times the boys are so flustered they don’t remember their home telephone numbers….the girls are particularly proud of their skill in finding a boy’s sweetheart or mother….One girl traced a boy’s mother through a neighbor to the railway station, had a redcap search half a dozen coaches to find her, and had her at a telephone half an hour after her son had placed the call.
(Another) placed a call, and reeled off the customary announcement giving the soldier’s name, adding, ‘Will you accept the charges?’
A voice, dull, hopeless, and uncomprehending, replied slowly: ‘I wish I could. But I received word two months ago that he was killed in action.’
‘But he wasn’t,’ the girl spoke up. ‘Why, he’s standing right here beside me now.’
And then there was silence, for the woman at the other end had fainted.”
To learn more about V.E. Day, go to these links: