“Our roll of honor is long, but it holds no nobler figure.”
—John Buchan, Pilgrim’s Way
The troop train, filled with soldiers, pulled out of the station near Fort Dix, New Jersey, and sped westward. In those faraway years of World War II, the men were in it for the duration. They had not been told where they were going or for how long. “Loose lips sink ships,” they were reminded over and over again.
Late on a dark night, the train, now speeding along on the track of the old Erie Railroad, passed into Ohio’s Ashland County. Among the many young men destined for the faraway war was my uncle Kenny Sloan, then only in his twenties. As the train passed by the tiny village of Nankin, Ohio, Kenny gazed out the window into the night and saw the light in his parents’ farmhouse kitchen glowing in the darkness. That moment of pathos meant nothing to the steam engine pulling the train. It continued chugging on its way to the West Coast. Where were they headed? How long would they be there? What would it be like when they returned home? Would they be returning home at all? Those questions hung unanswered in the night air.
In Kenny’s case, he was destined for the war in the Southwest Pacific. His journey would take him to Australia and other faraway lands. Like so many of his generation, it was a journey that would never really end.
There was a superstition that was widely believed during the dark days of the Second World War, that if a serviceman’s picture fell off the wall, it was a warning that he had just been killed or wounded in action upon some far-flung battlefield. My parents had a picture of Uncle Kenny in his army uniform placed securely on a lamp table in their living room. One evening, while no one was in close proximity to it, the picture did a flip in midair and crashed to the floor. Of course, everyone immediately feared the very worst.
While the wounds inflicted upon Uncle Kenny in the Southwest Pacific theater were not fatal, they were severe. An incoming mortar shell killed the soldier standing next to him. Kenny was wounded in the legs, causing his kneecaps to eventually be surgically removed.
When I was very young, I regarded Kenny as larger than life, a man of the world, largely because for years he piloted the company plane for Archway Cookies, which was headquartered in our hometown of Ashland. With the passage of years and with greater understanding, I came to regard him more as a hero because of the 32 surgeries he endured, without complaint, on his legs during the years after the war. Despite it all, he was the most cheerful and well liked of men. He navigated around town in a specially modified van with a power lift, provided by Disabled American Veterans. Whenever I shared a table with Uncle Kenny and Aunt Mary at a popular restaurant in my old hometown, downing mug after mug of strong coffee and talking over the state of the world, people continually stopped by to say hello to him.
Most of my uncles who served during World War II remained mute about their battlefield experiences. I remember that Uncle Kenny spent a lengthy period in a military hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Given that it was Australia, mutton was the most frequent item on the menu. Uncle Kenny later said that he consumed so much that he was never able to look a sheep in the face again.
I remember, too, his sharing that an Australian nurse whom he regarded highly for her kindness was accidentally electrocuted when she accidentally stepped on a hot wire in the hospital where he was sequestered. The good die young in wartime, as in any other time it seems.
Five of my uncles served in World War II. My uncle David Sloan served in the Army Air Force, the precursor to the United States Air Force. He was assigned to Brazil, where he served as a motorcycle courier. Uncle Elmer served in the army and came under enemy sniper fire more than once while liberating enemy occupied European villages. Uncle Jack Stiebritz served in the U.S. Army as it battled its way across the sun-blasted wastes of North Africa, up the Rhone Valley of France, and into the heart of the Nazi fatherland.
Throughout my boyhood in Ashland, Ohio, I treasured the few souvenirs handed down to me by uncles who served; coins from Australia, some with kangaroos engraved on their shiny surfaces, a coconut brought home by Uncle David. I still have the coins. When I was around eleven years old, I gave into temptation and chopped the coconut open with my Boy Scout ax, only to find inside a dried-up husk. I don’t know what I had expected to find. I only remember that I had liked it better when it rested unopened atop my mother’s china cabinet.
My Great-uncle Col. Homer H. Sloan was based in London during the time when preparations were being made for the invasion of Festung Europa. One day, he managed to have lunch with his son, Harold, who was also in the army and would be part of the D-Day invasion. They never knew whether they would see one another again. Uncle Homer was later headquartered in the Belgian city of Liege. Day and night, he could hear the strange barking noise made by German V-1 missiles as they streaked overhead through the sky in a series of three. He knew that the first V-1 was targeted on London, the second on the seaport city of Antwerp, and the third on his own neighborhood in Liege. Thankfully, Uncle Homer and his son both survived the war.
Miraculously, all five uncles returned from the war and went on to live honorable, responsible lives. Like so many veterans of World War II, they said little about their time as soldiers. I remember only Uncle Kenny voicing his hope that there would be no more wars. Those of his generation were promised “The Best Years of Our Lives” once the conflict ended. That dream ended on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, invading their southern neighbor. Wars and rumors of wars have interrupted the peace of the world ever since, as they seem to have since the dawn of humankind.
At this time, the world stands again upon a precipice, threatened anew with mass destruction, suffering, and death. Some say that the Third World War may have already begun on the day a few short weeks ago when Russian dictator Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade neighboring Ukraine. Some say it began years earlier, comparing Russia’s annexation of the Crimea to Hitler’s absorption of the Sudetenland. Only future historians will know the answer. For now, all anyone can hope for is that there never is a World War III.
As dark and dreary as such realities may be and as anxious about the future they may cause us to be, one can only imagine how much worse the world today would be had it not been for the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation of World War II. We owe much to those who served and sacrificed in all our wars, even those that in retrospect seem ill-advised and less popular.
Memorial Day is meant to be exactly what it is called, a day to remember those who served and sacrificed and all too often made the ultimate sacrifice. The bullies and bad guys, the autocrats and generalissimos do not give up without a fight. It seems that a new Greatest Generation is now hearing the call to defend all that is fair and kind and decent.
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