As we grapple with the plague of Coronavirus, can we draw any inspiration from what our country accomplished during World War Two?
On 8 May 1945, seventy-five years ago, a heroic national struggle came to an end when Nazi Germany surrendered to the United States and its allies.
Mixed emotions for GIs
The U. S. erupted in celebration, but for the GIs who had been fighting in Europe, the day was one of mixed emotions. In my dad’s letters to his parents, the mood is ambivalent.
Carl Lavin served as a rifleman in the 84th Infantry Division, which entered combat after D-Day and had fought from the Belgian frontier through the Battle of the Bulge, across the Rhine and the Roer, and now found itself on the Elbe, linking up with Russian troops.
For these soldiers, there were three reasons why VE Day was subdued.
First, the victory was anticlimactic. All the GIs knew for several weeks that the war was over. The German attacks were less frequent and less professional.
The surrendering and captured Wehrmacht troops were not hardened soldiers, but simple villagers and kids. These kids were younger than the Americans – and the Americans themselves were just kids, Carl having graduated from high school in 1942.
So the final weeks were more a matter of cautious advance rather than combat. As April progressed, it was increasingly clear that Germany had lost the will to fight. With Hitler’s April 30 suicide, it was just a matter of days.
Continued conflict in the Pacific
Second, there was still Japan. The GIs knew — knew — they would be shipped to Japan.
“This is a solemn but glorious hour,”
President Truman told the nation in his VE address,
“We must work to finish the war. Our victory is only half won. The West is free, but the East is still in bondage…”
There was almost a fatalism in Dad’s letter home. He wrote:
“Well I feel fairly certain that I’ll go back to the States, get a furlough, and go to the Pacific… Don’t expect quite as many letters from me as you’ve been getting.”
Maybe not much to celebrate.
Human cost of war
Third, they knew the price they paid. In over 150 days in combat, the 84th Division suffered over 9800 casualties, or 70% of the division.
You can savour the victory, but there is a bit of emptiness. War correspondent Ernie Pyle explained,
“You feel small in the presence of dead men and ashamed of being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions.”
So it was a subdued celebration. The men of the 84th understood there would eventually be an end to the fight, and they knew there would be other enemies. Most of all, they understood they had to mourn their dead, just as we must mourn our dead today.
Frank Lavin served as Ronald Reagan’s White House political director from 1987 to 1989 and is the CEO of Export Now, a company that helps U.S. brands sell online in China.
His book, ‘Home Front to Battlefield: An Ohio Teenager in World War Two‘ was published in 2017 by Ohio University Press and is available on Amazon and at all good book stores.