Not long ago, I watched veterans receiving a tour of the National World War II Memorial in Washington.
I felt mixed emotions.
I'm an author of books about that war. I've interviewed hundreds who fought in it. Without buying completely into the "greatest generation" pastiche, it's impossible not to like and admire American military members who achieved nothing less than to save the world.
Judging from what others say, I might be the only person in America who isn't a fan of the memorial. To me, it's too big, too garish, and too ornate. Joking that it looks like the work of Josef Stalin's assistant chief architect has gotten me into trouble with even close friends. In reality, the architect was Friedrich St. Florian, working with a team.
We live in an era when about 1 percent of the U.S. population has a direct stake in our current war, which apparently isn't important enough to rate even minor mention in a heated presidential election campaign. The median American adult, age about 31, has never worn a uniform and often doesn't know anyone who has. Yet we seem to see more public displays of patriotism, bumper stickers, yellow ribbons and the like, than ever before. I've also gotten into trouble for arguing that patriotism should be worn lightly.
The cause of my mixed emotions, however, is the cohort of Americans who never reached the war or who never came home from it. They never received a guided tour of any memorial. They never saw the post-war years. Most never married or had children.
They are forever young. A poster created by Herndon resident F. Clifton Berry for the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in England reads: "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds."
According to records that were kept but not released at the time, more than 20,000 men died in stateside aviation accidents while training to participate in a war they never reached.
Nile Kinnick, the Iowa running back who received the Heisman Trophy in 1939, was killed in the 1943 crash of an F4F-3 Wildcat fighter on an aircraft-carrier training flight off the coast of Venezuela. He was a naval aviator who never reached the war.
Others got there but never came home. United States forces suffered 291,557 battle deaths and 113,842 other fatalities during the war.
In my book "Mission to Berlin," I wrote about Frank Chrastka, a 19-year-old former lifeguard from a Polish-American family in Forest Park, Illinois. He was a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, a four-engined heavy bomber. He was said to be a ladies' man and something of a prankster.
On Feb. 3, 1945, Chrastka and the crew of a B-17 named "Blue Grass Girl" dropped their bombs on the capital of the Third Reich and turned for home. They'd completed their 35th mission, which meant their war was over. They would receive a certificate signed by Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, commander of the Eighth Air Force, making them members of the "Lucky Bastard Club." They would be able to go home to Mother. Against all odds, they'd completed their tour of duty without a mid-air collision or an oxygen malfunction, without freezing in sub-zero temperatures or having a heated flying suit catch fire, and without being scratched by German flak and fighters.
"Blue Grass Girl" was almost within eyesight of her home base in England when a crewmember of another B-17 noticed the plane was on fire. The cause of the fire is disputed to this day. The aircraft went down. Seven of the nine men aboard were killed, including Chrastka.
He is forever young.
He never saw his 20th birthday. He will never get to decide whether he likes architect St. Florian's design, which is so obviously outclassed by the compelling simplicity of Maya Lin's wall honoring our dead from Vietnam.
He will never be feted, honored or taken on a tour.
Today, the average new military recruit is about 21 years old. Many junior military members are much older. In World War II, a nine-man B-17 heavy bomber crew might have no one who had yet reached the then-voting age of 21.
My hat is off to everyone who was a part of World War II but my heart belongs first to those for whom the war was an end rather than a beginning. They gave us our future. They will be with us for as long as we remember them, and they will be forever young.