It’s been 14 years since I looked across the aisle of a Sun Country airplane and stared at a sleeping old man. He looked like a child lulled to sleep by the drone of a jet engine. His head bobbed slightly with each skip of turbulence. So peaceful. Yet, there was pain.
His face did not seem completely relaxed, like the younger volunteer sitting next to him. The older man’s face suppressed a layer of pain just below the surface, something only more than eight decades of life can deliver. Perhaps it came from taking another person’s life in battle. Maybe it was witnessing death, both of friend or foe.
Toes, fingers and limbs were lost for many. Some conflicts happened from a distance, others were in close combat. All of it was completely unnatural for these once young kids from the Midwest. Headed to the homecoming one day and on a battlefield just a couple of seasons later.
This particular plane was loaded to the rivets with World War II veterans who were on their way to the newly-opened World War II Veterans Memorial in D.C. It honors the 16 million U.S. citizens who served and the 400,000 who perished. The one-day trip, sponsored by a local Lion’s Club, was a reminder of an unforgettable period in history.
The old man, like all of the vets on board that day, had their own set of memories and challenges that were tied up in their time served, but also in the lives they led after the war. It was a war that altered so much in our world, and it all came at the expense of men and women who were at the peak of their youth.
For every tragedy that society creates and then endures, there is a natural tendency for those most affected to never want to see it repeated. Some on this plane had experienced the war on land, others in the air, and still others at sea. Few ever wanted to talk about it.
For those stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, this Dec. 7 marks 80 years since the attack by the Japanese. Like the World Trade Center, Pearl Harbor has an incredibly still feeling about it. Almost as if time has stopped.
Perhaps that comes from the horrifying images of what took place. It’s all well chronicled at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, including the watery graveyard of the USS Arizona, still visible from a platform above. Bubbles of leaking oil still gurgle up from the rusting tomb. It’s as if somebody below is still sending a message that they want to be saved. It’s hard to hold back tears thinking of all the sailors trapped below deck when the massive ship was sunk. Or those who leaped for the water, only to be engulfed in flames from an oil slick that burned for hours.
Our respect for what happened there may be tied to the sheer number of lives lost in both attacks, 2,403 at Pearl Harbor and 2,763 at the World Trade Center. Each person who died had a story. Each had so much more to give. Each had no idea it was coming.
The veterans on the war memorial plane were once young. They had great pride and wanted to serve their country, protecting democracy and freedom. But they paid a steep toll.
It’s hard to dismiss the price of wars when you have the time to examine them looking back. You see all the destruction and loss of life.
There are times when our freedoms must be protected in battle. But there is always death and devastation. That is a fact. It is almost always our children, our barely graduated young adults, who have carried that burden of sacrifice. Those who can survive the ravages of war take the scars with them through their lives, right to the day they are eventually laid to rest.
For the sake of our kids and our country, let’s make sure Dec. 7 remains a historical wound that is never forgotten or repeated.
The pain of an old man should never be wasted, not even 80 years later. — Keith Anderson
(Editor’s note: Keith Anderson is director of news for APG of East Central Minnesota.)