It's hard to argue.
For sheer human impact, nothing comes close. Seventy-eight countries and entities mobilized some 100 million troops and support personnel for the war effort, roughly 5 percent of the world's population at the time. Some 60 million people died, most of them civilians. Entire races of people were brought to the edge of extinction.
Battles raged on three continents and millions of square miles of ocean. Every inhabited continent was affected. One was utterly destroyed. Entire economies were refitted to produce the machines of war. The most horrific weapon we've ever created was born in this war, as were some of our greatest accomplishments in saving life. Gender roles were broken by necessity, sending millions of women into the blue-collar workforce.
It touched everything.
And yet, nearly 70 years later, I don't know a single living person who served in the Second World War. Not one.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hat isn't to say I haven't heard my share of war stories. I used to sit around my maternal grandparents' living room, among its many ornaments and plants (some fake, some real), riding the carved wooden elephant my grandfather brought from overseas as he told me his stories from Okinawa -- an island near Japan that saw the largest amphibious assault of World War II's Pacific theater. Grandpa, though, wasn't there during World War II. He was a crew chief for spy planes during the Korean War. My dad's dad -- who I never met -- wasn't in the military at all.
I called my parents to see if they knew people who had fought. "I did," my dad replied, "but they're all dead." His recollection of their stories -- gunners on destroyers, island-hopping snipers, shipwrecked commandos on shark-ravaged lifeboats, survivors of Bataan -- already second-hand, have become gauzy with years. When he's gone, they'll be entirely opaque, unless I can remember them. And I only really know what I've written here.
The oral history of World War II is dying at a rate of 1,000 voices per day. It's being replaced, if by anything at all, with the grandiloquent, harrowing, romantic, people-pleasing tales told by Dreamworks, Vintage Paperbacks and Simon and Schuster. I've personally taken my history piecemeal and fictionalized from Vonnegut, Heller, Spielberg and Spiegelman, only two of whom ever actually knew firsthand the war's horrors.
Really though, compared with people younger than me, I'm a walking encyclopedia. "An unacceptably large number of high school seniors are headed out into the real world thinking we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War," says Ken Burns in a heartfelt but clearly scripted advertisement for his new 14-hour documentary, The War. Burns says he made the documentary because there aren't many left who remember, because the battle for history is a continual retreat pocked by outposts of resistance and remembrance. At seven episodes following four towns (Sacramento; Mobile; Waterbury, Conn. and Luverne, Minn.) The War isn't the Maginot Line -- it can't be. With luck, though, it'll be enough to protect what Burns believes are the representative stories of four unique cities.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & here do you even start, though, with a subject this impossibly big? Even if you're Ken Burns -- a guy who thrives on whittling subjects of incomprehensible scale into 5 or 10 two-hour commercial-free blocks of public television -- how do you get your head around it?
The answer lies, ultimately, with the painfully earnest, unbelievably articulate words of Sam Hynes. "I can't speak about why human beings in general go to war," Mr. Hynes says, "I can only speak about why 18-year-olds from Minneapolis go to war. They go because it's impossible not to. They go because a current has been established in a society so swift, flowing toward war, that every young man that steps into it is carried downstream."
You find people who speak as though their words came straight from the typewriter of a latter-day Don Delillo, then you go to their hometowns and dig among the ruins of time. With luck, what you'll find -- and perhaps what Burns has found, we'll have to see -- isn't the whole truth, but enough seeds of it to replant the field once the tanks roll through.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & al Dunham was 10 years old on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. He and a friend were in Dunham's home in Walla Walla, listening to the radio, when a man interrupted with news of the attack and President Franklin Roosevelt's intention to declare war.
"It didn't mean a lot because it was so far away," Dunham told an interviewer from Spokane's Inland Northwest Community Access Network (TINCAN) in 2003 as part of TINCAN's Inland Northwest Memories Project. But the message started to sink in a year later, Dunham reported, when his 18-year-old brother was drafted and sent to Fort George Wright in Spokane. "I reme
Dunham's other brother, only 14, enlisted the same year. "He was already 6-feet-4-inches and weighed a couple hundred pounds ... my parents never figured out how he did it, but somebody had to help him," said Dunham.
Dunham's father helped with the war effort at home. He became one of 100 civil wardens in Walla Walla. "I remind historians that shortly after Pearl Harbor a Japanese sub fired on the state of Oregon in Astoria. We didn't know whether they were coming or not. They trained my father how to teach people to seek safety, what to do in case of a gas attack, the very things we ought to be doing today."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & illions of American men and women were sent overseas, to Europe or the Pacific, to fight, to supply the troops or give them medical care. But the war effort started at home. Stores in downtown Spokane put up posters in their windows asking people to support the troops by buying war bonds. Women filled in for the men who went to fight by working traditionally male industrial jobs.
After the opening of an Army Air Force training facility at Walla Walla Field, Hal Dunham's family took in boarders.
"The paper appealed to homeowners to rent out bedrooms because there was no housing and a lot of these pilots-to-be were married," said Dunham. "We had a very large house and two extra bedrooms because two brothers went to war. Over a period of 24 months, we had couples use those two bedrooms upstairs. You can imagine - these girls were married at the age of 21, 20, and now they're away from home ... so my mother kind of became their mother in place."
Families were asked to sacrifice by limiting their consumption of consumer goods. In an Inland Northwest Memories Project interview, Marie Clemons from Colville remembered, "If you bought cheese, you had to use a ration stamp. You could only have one five-pound bag of sugar ... per month. We were allowed 28 ounces of meat a week ... I remember my mother saving the fat, rendering it, when meat was cooking. You saved [extra fat] in a coffee can and you could take it down to your meat market and you would get two red ration points for every pound of fat that you donated. [That meant] you could buy more meat."
Clemons remembered the rationing extended to tires and gasoline.
"They didn't want you to go over 35 miles per hour anywhere, to save money and gas," she said. "My father walked to work a lot of the time ... and it was probably a three-mile walk back and forth ... We didn't do a lot of traveling. A trip to Spokane was a big event. And I don't remember we ever did come down, except in an emergency. We couldn't afford it."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he federal government built two major military projects in the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene area. It chose Spokane's West Plains over Seattle and Everett to host an airplane repair depot. According to an Air Force fact sheet, the Spokane site had "better weather conditions, the location 300 miles from the coast and the Cascade Mountain range providing a natural barrier against possible Japanese attack."
It didn't hurt that Spokane business and civic leaders bought 1,400 acres in January 1942 and gave the land to the War Department. The government then bought more land and built the Spokane Army Air Depot, which "served as a repair depot for damaged aircraft returning from the Pacific Theatre," according to the fact sheet.
In North Idaho, the Navy built a training center on the southern end of Lake Pend Oreille at Bayview, roughly halfway between Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint. It considered the base such a priority that it imported thousands of workers to the area. Ground was broken in April 1942 on Farragut Naval Training Station, the first of six recruit camps opened that September, and the base was finished in about eight months.
The base, in essence, became the largest town in the state of Idaho with a peak population of about 42,000. It had its own school, a hospital, two chapels, a recreation building, dormitories for the trainees and homes for Navy families. People who lived as far away as Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene commuted to the base.
"Farragut involved, in one way or another, every person in North Idaho," reported the North Idaho News Network in a 1992 article about the history of the base, "for few could ignore the presence of thousands of young servicemen in their midst. Many families ... took in young Navy officers or their families. Many were involved in USO activities."
Rail lines were improved to haul in people and goods. A new bus company was started; it ran buses from Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint to the base and back.
"About 50 women a day [from CdA] rode out to Farragut ... taking cookies and donuts and other treats to the boys in the hospital," according to the article. "While they were there, they did mending, wrote letters, wrapped packages, planned parties and read to the patients."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen the war ended, so did Farragut's main reason for being. The base was closed in 1946.
Other facilities developed new missions after the war. The Spokane air depot was assigned to the newly created Department of the Air Force and, in 1951, it was renamed Fairchild Air Force Base. The Velox Naval Supply Depot in the Spokane Valley, which had employed 1,500 during the war, became the Spokane Business and Industrial Park in the 1950s. The site is still home to a U.S. Army Reserve center.
Henry Kaiser took over Spokane's Mead and Trentwood plants that produced metal for the war effort, helping the region keep hundreds of manufacturing jobs in the area for several decades.
Veterans returned to the region, many going back to school using money from the G.I. Bill, and lived in small homes built in new housing developments for their families.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & emory is a capricious thing. Events happen; we see, we hear, we feel. Some of those sights, sounds and feelings linger as memories. Each one of us is a walking treasure trove of images and stories, carried in an imperfect, fragile vessel.
The sharing of memories plays an important role in the transmission of culture. As the numbers of those who remember World War II decrease, our culture loses its subjective history of war. As those people die, they take their unique memories, stories and sense of self with them. Only the stories they shared remain behind. Gathering those stories has become a kind of salvage ethnography.
That's the motive behind the Veterans History Project (VHP), an ongoing effort through the Library of Congress to collect and preserve first-hand accounts of veterans who served in the major American conflicts of the past century, including the current military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The Project also accepts stories of U.S. civilians who were "actively involved in supporting war efforts.") The VHP, which began in 2000, is partnering with filmmaker Ken Burns to encourage veterans, their relatives and communities to capture stories about the war before they disappear.
Both parties expect the broadcast of The War to trigger an outpouring of stories. PBS stations across the country are preparing a community engagement campaign to reach out to veterans and families.
To help people get started, the VHP -- along with Florentine Films and WETA, the public television station in Washington, D.C. -- has created a field guide for those interested in conducting and preserving interviews. The guide offers suggestions on how to locate a veteran willing to be interviewed, where to find accurate background information, and hints on how to conduct an interview, including a list of sample questions. The VHP prefers video recordings of interviews in order to capture facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. Interviewers need to include a battery of forms (biographical data on the subject, release forms, a recording log) when they send in their interviews. The VHP then reviews and catalogues the materials (a process that currently takes four to six months), making the information physically available to researchers at the Library of Congress and online through the searchable VHP Website.
Locally, the Inland Northwest Community Access Network (TINCAN) has created an online history archive, the Inland Northwest Memories Project, which includes several oral histories from veterans and civilians who lived in this area during the war. TINCAN is a contributing member to the VHP at the Library of Congress, and the network is still actively collecting and posting oral histories and scanned photographs.
When subjects speak of their experiences in these interviews, they are piecing together a narrative from memories. Some are better storytellers than others; their stories meet our definition of a pleasing tale, complete with a logical plot, memorable characters and a strong performance. Others may meander from one reflection to another or perhaps deliver their stories in a monotone. But even if their narratives are not polished or formal, the subjects weave their World War II memories together in a way that lends meaning and structure to the chaotic past events of their lives.
Veterans History Project, the Library of Congress
Inland Northwest Memory Project, TINCAN
Community Engagement Initiative