- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2000

What did my old man do during the ferocious battle for Okinawa Island, which began on April 1, 1945? He "made smoke" to cloak capital ships from Kamikazes that had broken through the northern picket lines and were coming down on them. The small boat on which he was gunner's mate patrolled the inshore areas as well, hunting for Japanese suicide speedboats loaded with TNT.
"Beginning in April, this activity went on for approximately three months," he once recounted. "As the ships shelled the Shuri Line (we called it the 'Shuri Castle') the hot missiles could be seen even in the daytime flying over us and were a cause for worry. At night the blinding flashes had to be contended with. This went on all through the summer, since enemy planes came down even after June."
But my father had it cushy compared to the leathernecks who waded ashore that Easter Sunday. Though the landing at Okinawa was unopposed, 100,000 well dug-in Japanese, with their backs to the wall and only 350 miles from the homeland, turned the island's interior into a grisly, 82-day meatgrinder, resulting in nearly 40,000 American casualties. So brutal were the "mud and maggots" of Okinawa, in fact, that 26,000 more participants were evacuated because of psychological breakdowns.
But for those who survived, the war was the experience of a lifetime. "When the war was over we went into the Kyushu area to clean out mine fields so troops could get into the Japanese naval base at Sasebo," my father told me. "At night we found shelter at Iki Shima and once a typhoon forced us into Sasebo before the army came in. We went ashore against rules and had a good look around." There, the landing party "found a most primitive, but civilized, population," according to his recollection. "I doubt that many on the island had ever before seen an Occidental." He stopped with shipmates in a native ancestral graveyard, where they posed for a grainy snapshot that later in life became a prized possession.
My father, who before 1942 never strayed far from the coal regions of Pennsylvania, also visited Eniwetok, Guam, the Philippines and Iwo Jima during the war although the worst of the fighting was over when he got there. But he often spoke of other exotic, sacred-sounding places Tinian, Truk, Wake Island, Kwajalein, Tarawa, Peleliu and the heroic and gruesome deeds that transpired at each were sometimes the subject of breakfast table stories when Sunday mornings slowed our family down.
His were unglamorous as some war stories go, but the long summer spent on the waters around Okinawa, and serendipitous excursion into Sasebo near war's end, etched themselves deeply onto my father's memory and character. Each year, as April rolled around, he embarked on a sentimental sojourn back to those places and times marking a personal, often lonely, commemorative the rest of the family jokingly called "Okinawa Days." Each year, instead of fading away, events that occurred more than 50 years past in the Pacific seemed to loom ever larger in his memory, taking on added significance.
And why not? It's not every generation that breaks out of small-town America to win a "World War"; that feels the shiver of test-driving a shiny new "superpower" fresh off the showroom floor; that returns as undisputed heavyweight champ of the world, even if making smoke and sweeping for mines was all that you did to help win the war. And who can blame a person living in the chaotic and fractious place America has become for looking fondly back on the place it was: unified, energized, and locked in a titanic struggle with evil played out over the globe's vast expanses?
Who, moreover, can blame us, the sons and daughters of what some have called the "greatest generation" who warmed ourselves in the reflected glory of its heroism and triumph from wondering, and worrying not a little, about what America will become without them. About what character it will assume when such memories are collectively expunged from living America.
Of course, as defining generational moments go, whipping Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo has distinct advantages over withdrawal to the 38th Parallel, Kennedy and King assassinations, the "days of rage" in Chicago, U.S. helicopters evacuating Saigon, Watergate's messy unfolding, or mastering Nintendo 64. With the possible exception of the lunar landing in 1969, a heady demonstration of American technological supremacy unremembered by anyone under 35, the nation has enjoyed few completely galvanizing moments since 1945.
But my father's dwindling generation can actually remember that time, feel as it felt, and it is hard to imagine an America devoid of their steadying presence. As his generation adjures to its own ancestral graveyards, so too dies any collective memory of America in its sublimity not a perfect place, it's compulsory to point out, but one that seems pristine by today's chaotic and uncertain standards.
Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that America has mourned the extinction of seemingly indispensable generations before, and warily wondered whether the nation could long survive their passing. Abe Lincoln, just a young Springfield lawyer in 1838, speaking to the Young Men's Lyceum, voiced similar worries about America's prospects as her founding generation, which he called "a fortress of strength," was being annihilated by "the silent artillery of time."
"They were the pillars of the temple of liberty," Lincoln said of the nation's first generation, "and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their place with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason." To "sober reason" the young Lincoln added "general intelligence," "sound morality" and "reverence for the Constitution and laws" as the surest foundations on which America's future would rest none of which, it is troubling to note, seem in ample supply today.
But at the time of this speech, Lincoln was just a competent and ambitious small-town lawyer, decades away from meeting his own destiny in leading the nation through the cataclysms of Civil War out of which yet another "greatest" generation would emerge. Whether that greatness and character shaped events or was shaped by them is a matter of debate. But standing where we do today, as young Lincoln did in 1838, wondering whether we have the right stuff to walk in our parents' footsteps as "the silent artillery of time" decimates their ranks, it is consoling to know America has long endured by miraculously proving such pessimism wrong.


Sean Paige is a writer for Insight on the News.

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