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Remembering greatness on V-J day

Aug 14, 2015

Seventy years ago today, the people of Japan heard their emperor’s voice on the radio for the first time. In perhaps history’s best example of euphemism, he told them, “Circumstances in the world conflict have proceeded in a manner not necessarily to our advantage.”

World War II, the greatest war in history, was over. Sixteen million Americans had served, hundreds of thousands from Michigan. Nearly thirteen thousand Michiganders died. I was born less than seven years after it ended, and growing up, most kids’ daddies had been in the war. They had souvenir Lugers and helmets and battle flags.

Stories of heroism were too numerous to count. Sonny Eliot, the wacky Detroit TV weatherman, had been a bomber pilot who endured fifteen months in a prison camp, worried the Nazis might learn he was Jewish.

Governor William Milliken served on a bomber and endured crashes and shrapnel. He spent hours on one mission with his hand tightly encased in frozen blood covering the hole in a buddy’s chest, knowing that if he moved the man would die.

He never talked about that when he was in politics. We baby boomers, their children, were the most pampered generation in history. Our parents, the greatest generation, had put off families because of the Great Depression, then the war. When it was over they had hordes of children as fast as they could, and largely spoiled us rotten.

When I was growing up, little boys knew the essential history of the war nearly as well as we knew our neighborhood. It was with us in movies and TV shows and memories.

The war was perfectly suited to art and literature. The bad guys were so perfectly bad. They nearly conquered the world, until the United States came to the rescue, and rolled back the nasty black stain that had covered much of the map of Europe and Asia.

Historians counted the day it ended as the start of the modern era. But something tragic is happening now. The last veterans of World War II are falling faster than in battle.

Ten years or so ago there were eight million left. Now, there are fewer than a million, dying at the rate of nearly five hundred a day. Yesterday, I had lunch with four veterans, who were lamenting that young people today knew little or nothing about their war. I knew what they meant; I’ve had students who asked if I had personal memories of World War II.

They didn’t know when it was, much less what it was about. Today, people who follow the news in this state are breathlessly awaiting the press conference of a female legislator apparently caught in a tawdry affair. But I will be remembering a soldier whose dog tag I once found on the beach at Corregidor in the Philippines.

I tracked him down and gave it back to him. On this day, seventy years ago, he was skin and bones, working underground as a slave laborer in a Japanese mine, when suddenly his dazed guards let him go. He told me after that, everything in life was easy.

He died soon afterwards and was buried with that dog tag. And I know this much: That he wouldn’t want us to forget.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.