My uncle was a tail gunner in a huge bomber. When I asked him what it was like to be shot down over a hostile section of Italy, he gave me an answer I've remembered for years since.
He said "I was a young fellow, about like you are, and I didn't know nothing about nothing, about like you don't. We went down, and we crash landed".
"It was dark when we landed, and there were kabooms and lights flashing everywhere, shooting and things going off. I looked around me, and I just said 'DAMN!'. I'd be in the air all that time, you see, and I never knew what war was like there on the ground".
On this day I watched a special movie about the events leading up to D-Day. I thought of men like my friend Greg's late father, who was an infantryman in the era of the lethal Battle of the Bulge and who apparently was among the soldiers who liberated a concentration camp. I appreciate the service of those who came before, and of those who serve now.
I thought to myself what a world it might be if we could all tackle issues in peacetime with the fervor of the Normandy invasion, or the focus of the Manhattan Project. What if we built homes instead of beachheads, and perfected sustainable agriculture instead of bombs?
But I don't live in the moments of momentous events and world salvations, whose dramatizations I watch on television. I live in a family, in which one uncle crouched, barely more than a teenager, and watched the lights flare, and heard the shots ring out, and then made his way cautiously back to his own lines.
I like another story from this era, which took place in 1943. A German maritime attache apparently leaked the news to a Danish politician on September 28, 1943, just three days before an expected Rosh Hoshannah "round up" by the Nazis to take place on October 1. Danes across the country began a system of smuggling Jewish Danes to Sweden, in fishing boats and small ships. Over 7,000 successfully escaped the Nazi action and spent the remainder of the war in neutral Sweden. By contrast, September 28, 1943 marked the day on which the last train left Luxembourg for the camps. Nobody intervened to try to stop the deportation to the camps. Of the 674 deported from Luxembourg (in eight transports), 36 survived.
I also like the story of Varian Fry, who set up a charity in 1940, ostensibly for relief, but in fact as a front to help people, including artists, escape from Nazi-controlled territories, often with forged paperwork.
Among those he helped to escape were:
Walter Mehring; and
Varian Fry was 32 when he did this. He saved perhaps 2,000 people from Vichy France.
He said "I stayed because the refugees needed me. But it took courage, and courage is a quality that I hadn't previously been sure I possessed."
During his lifetime, he was largely unrecognized for his efforts. The US government expressed frustration with his efforts. Because of his actions, during his time, the FBI put him under surveillance. Just before his death in 1967, the French gave him the Legion of Honour. At the time of his death, he was a high school Latin teacher.
"In all we saved some two thousand human beings.
We ought to have saved many times that number.
But we did what we could." Varian Fry
I am thinking tonight of not only momentous invasions, and brave soldiers, but also of ordinary people, who did all they could.