Don’t let the stories of service disappear
World War II impacted America, and the world, like no other conflict has before or after.
Don Smith, of Medford, was one of the 16 million American veterans who witnessed that war first-hand.
Smith, like many of his generation, was eager to sign up and fight. He grew up on a farm and saw the impact of the war first-hand.
“It was everywhere,” he said, talking about the rationing that controlled how much sugar or gasoline a family could have. He talked about the papers being filled with causality lists and accounts from the front lines. He talked about the prioritizing that would happen to determine if a farm could get a new tractor or piece of equipment.
On his 18th birthday, Smith joined the U.S. Navy and soon found himself in boot camp at Farragut Naval Training Station, located in Northern Idaho. It was the middle of winter and Smith described it as being “a bit cool.”
Smith tells of taking the train back and forth across the country when he returned home on leave. At the time, those in the service were required to travel in uniform. He recalls the respect the uniform brought and how strangers would invite soldiers in for Sunday dinner with their families.
Smith went into naval aviation as a radioman and tail gunner. He talks of training in Florida, with shotguns outfi tted with machine-gun firing mechanisms and how they went from being stationary, to being mounted on moving carts, with the targets on other carts that were also moving.
He talked of being on the shakedown cruise of the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard and later, on other carriers in the Pacific. He told, of life aboard ship and how the rails were lined with seasick marines, as they hit rough weather on the way from San Diego, Calif., to Hawaii. He talks of his missions, dropping bombs on military targets and how at the time, they questioned if they were actually helping win the war.
He tells of being on a bombing run and just hitting the coast of Japan, when word came over the radio to turn around and come home. The war was over.
Smith took the long way back to the States, going through the Panama Canal, and ending up back in port in Baltimore, Md. By that point, the big parades and parties were over.
Smith’s story is far from unique. He will tell you that there are thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen who had the same sorts of experiences. People who could have told similar stories.
Smith’s story is not one of spectacular heroics or epic battles. It is the story of a young man who answered his nation’s call and who, like millions of others, did a job that needed to be done. It is a story that needs to be shared and recorded, so that future generations far removed from the conflict, can access this first-hand experience and in doing so, gain an understanding of a conflict that shaped the remainder of the century.
Smith’s message is not to aggrandize war or gloss over any of its ugliness. It is simply to urge people, especially younger people, to ask their elders to share their stories.
Of the 16 million veterans who served in World War II, only about 389,000 remain. Within the next decade, that number is expected to drop to just a handful. According to the National World War II Museum, there are only about 8,400 World War II veterans still living in Wisconsin.
The same holds true for the stories of veterans from the other conflicts that shaped the past half century. According to government statistics, of the 5.7 million Americans who served during the Korean War, less than half, only about 2.25 million, remain. Vietnam Veterans are likewise facing the attrition of time.
As families gather in the coming holiday season, take time to ask older relatives of their experiences. Ask them to share the stories of their daily lives, what they did for fun, how they felt about the work they were doing.
These stories of service and sacrifice must not be allowed to fade into the darkness, but instead should live on through the retelling and remembrances of future generations.
Members of the Courier Sentinel editorial board include publisher Carol O’Leary, general manager Kris O’Leary and Star News editor Brian Wilson.