The same qualities that make Alvin Smith a good father-in-law evidently make him a good friend too. When he turned seventy last year, his wife, Blanche, planned a small party, but it didn’t stay small for long. Once his college pals got word of it, they came in from everywhere, and the celebration had to shift from the corner of a restaurant to the entire main floor of a midtown clubhouse.
At dinner it fell to me to offer a toast, and I vented the expected bromides in a satisfactory fashion, but during the rest of the evening I became increasingly fretful. I felt I’d missed an important opportunity.
Alvin Smith entered college with the class of 1944. He started out majoring in industrial management; he ended up in the Military Intelligence Service as a Japanese interpreter. One of his classmates had carried a rifle through the Normandy hedgerows; another had been wounded in a B-17 over Germany—hurt badly enough that he still didn’t want to talk about it with someone who hadn’t teen there.
And I hadn’t. I was a legatee of their efforts, born in the years after V-E Day and raised in a world they had helped retrieve from the worst imaginable calamity. What kept bothering me was that I had just blown the chance—my last—to say thank you half a century later.
I know this is symbolic, fanciful—but there they were, and I couldn’t shake the thought as the evening wore on. At the next arbitrary but compelling milestone, the seventy-fifth anniversary, there will be only a handful of World War II veterans left, ancient, paper-skinned men whose direct memories of Franklin Roosevelt will give the citizenry of 2019 the same melancholy thrill we get hearing someone who remembers Pershing arriving at Boulogne, or the French aviators released from service on the Western Front for a goodwill tour throwing their Nieuports through graceful ellipses above the Capitol in Washington.
So I am happy that this issue, marking as it does the enormous pivot that turned on the shale of Normandy Beach, offers me and my fellow editors the chance to thank Alvin Smith and his classmates and their thousands and thousands of colleagues. They all gave perhaps more than they knew, and although they are still among us, I think it is not inappropriate to mention them with those of their classmates who will forever stay in their early twenties.
In the preface to A World at Arms , his splendid new one-volume history of the war, Gerhard Weinberg speaks of the monument in the jungle town of Kohima honoring the British soldiers who died checking the Japanese advance into India. On it is a short verse: