The Nazis invaded Norway on the day I was born. Before I was two months old, Poland fell, ending the so-called “phony war.” Europe was crumbling like a piece of rotten wood; England was hanging on by the tips of its fingernails; Japan was sweeping through Asia, crushing its subjugated peoples with sadistic brutality. I was about 18 months old when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.
I grew up in a world at war. One of my earliest memories was praying with my mother for “the soldiers and sailors overseas.”
I didn’t know what it meant. At age 3 or so, I had a dim idea of what soldiers and sailors were but I remember wondering about “overseas.” Was it a place? If so, where was it? And why did people there need prayer?
Many a child of my age throughout the war-torn world knew only too well what we were praying for, why we prayed, as they trembled in bomb shelters, fled as refugees, knew hunger as I have never known it.
I met some of them the other evening.
Flipping through the channels on a rainy afternoon, I stumbled on a PBS special called, “America’s Finest Ambassadors.” Did you happen to see it?
Germans of my age shared their memories of the names and the faces of American GI’s who had showed them kindness and compassion at the end of the war, sharing their rations in a time of great hunger, protecting and helping them, playing with them, giving them candy bars and gum. One battalion stationed in bomb-wrecked Berlin even held a Christmas party, complete with a turkey dinner and gifts of candy, for 200 children of their neighborhood. 75 years later, their eyes filled with tears and voices with emotion. They are still grateful.
I, too, found myself moved to tears. I was so proud of those young men whose faces filled my TV screen—ordinary boys from ordinary backgrounds, fresh off the horrors of the battlefield, who could show such compassion for the hungry, frightened, traumatized children of the enemy.
They were real soldiers who had just fought a real war, war that demanded terrible things of them. What they had seen and done there would haunt them forever.
But they were good men who had fought for the future, for the children of the world…and I was one of those children. They gave their lives, their health, their safety, their innocence so we wouldn’t have to. They bequeathed us a better life than they could ever have dreamed of.
I pray my life was worthy of that sacrifice.
For on this Memorial Day, I look back…and like those Germans, I am grateful. And humbled.