WASHINGTON, D.C. - Author, Lee Bowman, SHNS
For Sen. Frank Lautenberg, surviving World War II was, more than once, a matter of luck.
Lautenberg was among hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers working in and around the Belgian port of Antwerp in late 1944, when Nazi Germany fought desperately to take it back.
As Lautenberg’s United States Army Signal Corps team spliced phone cables and repaired switchboards, German “vengeance weapons” -- V-1 bombs powered by jet engines, and V-2 rockets, the first ballistic missiles -- rained down on the port.
One exploded on the other side of an open drawbridge that had held up his team’s convoy; another landed at the very spot where Lautenberg and his crew had been working before they took a lunch break. Another day, he found himself dangling from a wooden pole, entangled in cables and gear, as air raid sirens warned of incoming buzz bombs, before finally falling to the ground with a thump. “I was kind of dazed and sore. Luckily, no bombs landed nearby,” he recalled.
“Each of us who served in places where shooting took place, bombing took place, had those kinds of funny, odd episodes occur,” the New Jersey Democrat noted recently, with the understatement typical of many war vets.
Lautenberg, who went to war at 18 and is now 87, is just one notable example of a dwindling national treasure, the survivors of more than 16 million American men and women who served in uniform during World War II. Lautenberg and Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, are the only veterans of the war still serving in Congress.
For many of the vets and those who chronicle their exploits, there is a sense of finality in the observance of the 70 th anniversary of America’s entrance into the war with the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The U.S. declared war on Japan the next day, and on Japan’s Axis partners, Germany and Italy, Dec. 11 -- the same day they declared war on America.
Many unit reunions are billing their events as the “last” formal gathering, acknowledging the dwindling numbers and failing health of vets in their 80s and 90s. Kids and grandkids of veterans now make up the majority of attendees. They collect stories, tend to commemorative Web pages and proudly display the memorabilia their loved ones brought home.
World War II is often cited as forging “the greatest generation,” Americans who came of age in the Great Depression, fought to save democracy from fascism and went on to lead the country into an unprecedented era of prosperity and social change.
Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote how the war had resulted in the “uniting of the American spirit,” how it created “the sense of a unified purpose,” that few other events in American history have achieved.
Roughly half of all American men aged 18 to 49 served in World War II, creating “this huge group that had a common bond of service to our country,” Lautenberg said. “We don’t have that so much today. There’s a greater detachment between service to our country and many people’s lives.”
The war mobilized the entire country, adding 19 million to the workforce, 35 percent of them women. Everyone lived with rationing. Children collected scrap metal and paper to be recycled into war material.
There’s an urgency to honor those veterans who remain. Congress has given special recognition this fall to the first African-American Marines, forced to train and serve separately from whites, and to Japanese-Americans, who were first declared enemy aliens, but then allowed to serve in segregated units.
Battling Germans in Europe and prejudice at home -- including internment of many of their families -- Japanese-American soldiers were determined to succeed, none more than Inouye, who lost his right arm destroying enemy machine guns with hand grenades.
Inouye went on to become a lawyer and has represented Hawaii in the Senate for more than 48 years. In 2000, he and 19 other members of the 442 nd Regimental Combat Team were awarded the Medal of Honor following a Pentagon review of discrimination during and after the war, and two years after the government formally apologized to Japanese-Americans for their treatment.
“I left the war as an adult -- I was a teenager when I got in -- feeling rather proud of myself as an American, and to this day I look upon my country as a great country,”