We were talking the other day in the newsroom about World War II veterans.
The Daily Post was running a front-page story the next day about Jim Starnes and Dutch Van Kirk and their visit to The Wesleyan School. Van Kirk was the navigator aboard the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, another bomb was dropped at Nagasaki, and less than a month later the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri. Starnes was there for that momentous occasion. Both men are 91.
Most of the men of that generation are in their 80s or 90s now. The veterans of that war are dying at a rate of something like a thousand a day. It won't be too many more years before they're all gone and moments like the one at Wesleyan will be impossible.
During our discussion, we wondered if these kids knew how truly lucky they were, if they knew what an honor it was to see and listen to two of the men who saved the world from tyranny. And we lamented that too many in the future would have no idea, that the sacrifices of that generation would one day be just pages in a history book, as strange to consider as a Roman gladiator or a Napoleanic conscript.
The discussion then turned to our own relatives, grandfathers mostly, and their various duties, posts, battles and wounds -- and to how lucky we were to know their stories, even if some wouldn't tell them directly either out of pain of memory or fear of sharing something too horrible with someone too young.
My own grandfather died when I was 5 years old. I never got to hear his stories first-hand, only from my Granny, who just turned 90. Grandaddy fought in North Africa and later in Italy, where he was when Benito Mussolini was executed. One of the grandest days of my life came when I was about 12 or 13, when Granny opened an old box of his military things. I picked up a pair of leggings and poured sand out of them. Whether it was from an Italian beach or the Sahara desert I don't know, but it told me something no history book or television show could -- that these battles, these places, these horrible things were real, that real men and women took part in them. My Grandaddy was one of the guys who fought the Nazis and the Italians. I couldn't have been more proud.
If you'll look at the calendar, you'll notice today is another special World War II anniversary. Seventy-one years ago this morning the Japanese "suddenly and deliberately attacked," as President Franklin Roosevelt said, at Pearl Harbor and awoke the sleeping giant of America. About four years later, "the American people in their righteous might" -- men like Van Kirk and Starnes -- would put an end to Japanese conquest and make true Roosevelt's prediction of "absolute victory."
If you know one of these increasingly rare and remarkable people who fought World War II, take the time to thank them. If someone you knew is already gone, take the time to remember. Better yet, take the time to pass on their story to a young person.
Make sure the Greatest Generation never becomes a forgotten one.
Email Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.