Unfolding the Map
As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) eats breakfast under a pair of two silent watchtowers from the World War II era, I will devote this post to the rapidly disappearing living history of World War II. It's a little late for Veterans Day, but I hope it helps honor this important generation who didn't wish for a worldwide conflict to be thrust upon them, but answered the call with humility and courage all the same. To see where these relics of the war are located, take aim and target the map. (Note: I guessed at the site based on the fact that LHM wrote that he was "south" of Rehoboth Beach and there are two towers within site. However, there is another likely site north of Rehoboth Beach where two towers sit in sand near the water and each other.)
"South of Rehoboth Beach, I stopped to eat breakfast on the shore. Even though the sky was clear, the windy night still showed in the high surf. At my back rose two silo-like concrete observation towers, relics from the Second World War. At the top of each were narrow openings like sinister eyes. A battering of starlings flew in and out of the slits, the shrill bird cries resonating weirdly in the hollow stacks. The towers were historical curiosities, monuments to man's worst war, one that never reached this beach; yet nothing identified them. To the young, they could be only mysteries. Had they come from the more remote and safer history of the Revolutionary or Civil wars, they would have been commemorated. Just when is history anyway?"
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 13
We are just a few days past Veterans Day as I write this post, and the quote above is quite timely. Since my father and uncles served in the military (my father was in the Army and stationed at Saipan), I have always found the World War II era to be one of the most interesting to study. When I was in grammar school, my friends and I always drew "war pictures" complete with planes screaming down on soldiers and buildings, or fighting each other in the sky, and heroic men charging with guns blazing into battle against the Germans or the Japanese. Given that we were in school at the tail end and just after the Vietnam War, we hardly ever considered that war as a subject for our artwork. It was always World War II. We supplemented our knowledge of World War II from the myriads of movies that were on television on lazy weekend Saturdays. I think that my preteen years were spent mostly watching World War II movies or football games.
Yet as I think about it, LHM is right. As a country, we have extensively memorialized other great wars, such as the Revolutionary War which freed the United States from Britain, and the Civil War, which reunited a fractured country (and the wounds of which we are still healing). But the great wars of the last century - World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War - do not get much in the way of physical memorials. In many towns across America, you might find a pillar memorializing the men from the town or region that fought in World Wars I and II. Sometimes they have been kept up, and sometimes they are woefully neglected, sitting unobserved in plain sight. There are monuments to World War II, including an impressive one in Washington DC, and it has been celebrated in cinema and television. The Vietnam War has a wonderful memorial, but being in Washington DC it is not accessible to most people. But as we move farther away from World War II, a war which might have saved democracy and civilization itself, and as its veterans pass away into history we are beginning to suffer amnesia. We forget how a country prone to isolationism shook itself and took up the mantle of defender of democracy and in the process became a superpower.
Why do we forget? Perhaps it's because the 20th century wars were mostly fought in foreign lands, and therefore the United States does not bear the scars of those wars on its own turf like the great battles of the Civil War and Revolutionary War. Perhaps it's because we live in our version of a modern world, where history seems to take a back seat to technology and young people are not interested anymore in the exploits of their grandfathers. Perhaps it's because we've turned Hitler and the Nazi movement into a comic caricature, especially on movies and television, that trivializes the horrific dangers the world faced if he had triumphed. Perhaps it's because we didn't have any battles on American soil. Maybe it's because we won the war which ameliorated, somewhat, the pain and anguish faced by those who lost family members and loved ones in the struggle. And perhaps it's because as a society, we have not done as much as we can to keep this history alive.
Every once in a while, something comes along to jar our collective memories. Books like Band of Brothers or The Greatest Generation. Movies like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List. The death of a Navajo code talker or a Bataan Death March survivor. The discovery of unexploded ordnance in Europe in a river or at a construction site. Certainly, not everyone was a hero in World War II. Most of the soldiers fighting that war just did their jobs. Many died, many more did not. We celebrate the extraordinary exploits of a few, and honor the sacrifice and the commitment of the many regardless of whether they singlehandedly took out a platoon of Germans or an entrenched gun emplacement on Iwo Jima, or simply cooked (like my father) in a mess tent on a barren rock in the middle of the Pacific.
I remember thrilling to stories that my father told me about B-29s taking off from Saipan laden with bombs, sinking at the dropoff at the end of the runway toward the ocean. He described the breathless seconds before the planes climbed back up and lumbered toward Japan, and how occasionally an overloaded one would fail to gain altitude and splash into the bay. I remember him telling me about a group of Japanese soldiers, after the war ended, getting drunk in a cave where they were holed up. The next day, dirty, hungry and hung over, they marched into the American camp to surrender. I remember his description of a under a parachute. My wife's father, who served in the Navy on a minesweeper, has told stories of braving Japanese island guns to clear the waters of mines before invasions, and being in the sites of a Japanese kamikaze. Both of these men were reluctant to bring up these stories, not wanting to boast and simply, humbly, considering it just something that they had to do.
We hear these stories because we ask about them. How many stories are still unheard?
Yet a spirit of remembrance is coming alive as that generation dies. In New Orleans, the National World War II Museum was dedicated a few years ago. It is a magnificent repository of memories and stories and a testament to the history and motivations behind the war. Compared to that memorial, the unmarked lookout towers along the Delaware shore, an important part of the past effort to hold vigilance against our enemies in World War II, seem unimportant. Yet they are part of an important collective history. Thankfully, since LHM ate breakfast in their shadows, a movement has begun to save the Delaware lookout towers. One of the towers, Tower 3 in Dewey Beach behind the spot where LHM ate his breakfast, is the subject of a campaign for renovation. The plans call for a visitor center and a museum that will honor veterans of World War II. As our World War II veterans march off, platoon by platoon, to their rest, perhaps we will realize what we've lost and creatively and respectfully honor them as they deserve.
One of the biggest selling songs during World War II, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra jarred me when I first heard it. It seems uber-patriotic but, when I think about what the troops needed while deployed on ships, in tanks, in planes, and on the ground during World War II, I think that it probably gave them quite a lift to their spirits and helped them believe that even in the darkest days, they would eventually prevail.
If you want to know more about the Delaware shore
Next up: Ocean City, Maryland