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Military Matters: Forever Young

Those who didn't come home from the war will be with us so long as we remember them.

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Erik Gilg July 13, 2012 at 05:44 PM
This is a lovely take on how to think about patriotism in our everyday life. I read the author's MISSION TO BERLIN, which he mentions in this article, and it is full of these stories of very young men frozen in time and who are often forgotten.
David Shelby July 27, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Bob hits the nail right on the head with his assessment of our current and past military situations. I also agree that it is crucial to honor our fallen veterans and to try to understand what they have experienced. During my visits to the WWII memorial, often with veterans from that war, I have heard only praise for the design. I feel that the memorial is perfectly positioned in its location in DC and gives us all a place to reflect on the sacrifice and service of all our military men and women. Watching my friends from the 97th Bomb Group lay a wreath honoring their fallen comrades in 2006 was something I will not forget.

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