- Historic Sites
They Were There
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
During World War II my father served in the North Atlantic aboard a destroyer escort, and a few years afterward his old skipper came into New York Harbor with a destroyer squadron and invited my family out for a ride. I was five or six at the time and predictably enchanted to be brought into this square, handsome gray-metal world inhabited by casual blue-clad demigods. We weighed anchor—lots of satisfying noise and activity—and headed toward the Narrows. I was on the bridge watching it all when Captain Greenbacker turned and said, “Want to take her out, Dick?” And suddenly my father—my father in his workaday father-issue brown suit—was saying things like “Steady up on course zero-three-zero,” and a roomful of men in uniforms were doing what he told them.
In one of those moments of illumination that come to the young, I had the sensation of the past opening up before me like a door giving onto thin air. My father hadn’t existed solely to make sure I had a place to live; in another life he had learned how to handle a warship. I wondered at the immensity of the enterprise that could work such a change. A lifetime later, I’m wondering still.
It didn’t happen overnight, of course. Long before my architect father could be taught to make himself useful on a DE, a group of hard-pressed regulars had to fight the two most capable armies on the planet, and this issue of the magazine is largely given over to their war—to the first months of the struggle, when we still might have lost it. Of course, as Roger J. Spiller points out in his essay, the business of gauging a war’s progress is relative, and there were in 1945 many thousands of soldiers for whom the war would last—literally—all the rest of their lives. Still, the risks were greatest at the beginning. So here is Edward L. Beach laying out the desperate combination of sagacity and recklessness that allowed our carriers to beat four-to-one odds in the Pacific, and Peter Andrews telling what it was like in North Africa when we went after Rommel in tanks that ignited so reliably that the Germans called them Ronsons. And here, too, is the series of lucky accidents that culminated in the movie Casablanca, which to this day serves double duty as a swell love story and a satisfying allegory about the awakening of the Western democracies to a danger that—as the astounding account of the Duke of Windsor suggests—many did not want to confront at all.
At the end, the people who had survived came back to lead their lives—but never quite the lives they would have led. James Jones said the war left a “whole generation of men who would walk into history looking backwards.…None of them would ever really get over it.” Starting a few years ago, the mails began to bring to this office more and more World War II memoirs. The writers had followed their careers, raised their children, and now they were looking back on an incandescent time. Soldiers, sailors, aircrew—very different experiences, and, some of them, very grim ones. But all these accounts have one thing in common, and it is expressed most succinctly by a New Jersey man named Lathrop Mitchell, who summarized a long war: “I served about three years and four months in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army. Despite some very unpleasant experiences, I would not have missed it for anything.”