June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
“It’s ironic,” said Irwin Smoler cheerfully of some long-ago acquaintance, “He joined the Navy, but he got killed anyway.” Irwin Smoler (father of our contributing editor Fredric) was not in the Navy; he was in the infantry and survived the awful Ardennes fighting of late 1944.
My father was in the Navy. In fact, North Atlantic anti-submarine work could sometimes be not all that comfy, but to Mr. Smoler’s point, my father readily admitted that he’d never once had to sleep in a hole in the ground during a blizzard.
I do remember, however, standing with him at a party while a neighbor of ours strenuously advocated war in Southeast Asia. This was perhaps 1964—I think it’s the first time I ever heard anybody say the word Hanoi —and my father listened noncommittally while Mr. O’Connor (not his name) called down all the furies of hell on the Republic of North Vietnam.
Afterward I remarked that Mr. O’Connor had been pretty fierce. “Well, sure,” my father replied equably, “he was on an LMD during the war.”
“What’s an LMD?” I asked.
“Large mahogany desk.” I’ve thought of these two remarks quite often during the last few weeks, because their amiable, sardonic derision echoes what the articles in this issue offer: the voice of the people who fought World War II.
I’m happy to say you can still hear Irwin Smoler’s actual voice. But my father’s has been stilled for five years now, as have the voices of most who served in the war. That is why this issue commemorating its ending is unique and will remain so: Everything here is eyewitness. We are marking the last significant anniversary on which the story can be told by the people who wrote it, both on the loftiest rung of statecraft and from the close-to-the-ground viewpoint of the ordinary GI.
World War II continues to fascinate us not only because it is the most important event in the last century and a half, not only because its ramifications are still all about us, from the civil rights struggle to the computer, from America’s unprecedented power in the world to the bitter fight going on in the Middle East, but also because it is a profound moral fable.
I’ve managed to be involved in the raising of three generations of children, and I’ve increasingly found my attempts to teach them ethical lessons couched in the terms of this war. Here was an event that offered immense examples of pure evil, true good, every declension of human behavior in between, and my children could talk it over with people who’d been there.
Did Noah’s Ark really float? they’d ask me; Did Lazarus really rise from the grave? I don’t know. But I do know that in the southwest Pacific on the night of February 7, 1943, Howard Walter Gilmore, commanding the USS Growler in a surface action, was struck down by machine-gun bullets from the gunboat that was firing on his badly damaged submarine. He ordered the bridge cleared. Then, finding himself too weak to follow his men down the hatchway and realizing that to wait for one of them to come help him was to doom his vessel, he shouted to his officer of the deck the order that ended his life and saved his crew: “Take her down.”
I have no idea what sort of person Commander Gilmore was, but I certainly was happy to offer him to my children as the highest sort of example. I doubt whether many of the millions of Americans who went through the war buoyed themselves with the thought that they were on what General Eisenhower called “the great crusade.” They’d bitch and moan and sometimes steal torpedo alcohol to get drunk and hope that the other guy got the tough job. In fact, a great many of them were like the profane, brawling womanizer who is the subject of a poem Lincoln’s sometime secretary John Hay had written 70 years earlier, “Jim Bludso, of the Prairie Belle .”
The Prairie Belle was a Mississippi riverboat. Bludso was her engineer, and when she burst into flame one night, Bludso stuck to his post, holding her bow against the shore. Every passenger got to safety “. . . afore the smokestacks fell,— / And Bludso’s ghost went up alone / In the smoke of the Prairie Belle.”
Hay’s moral—and I believe that of the American effort in the Second World War:
He were n’t no saint,—but at jedgment I’d run my chance with Jim, ‘Longside of some pious gentlemen That would n’t shook hands with him. He seen his duty, a dead-sure thing,— And went for it thar and then; And Christ ain’t a going to be too hard On a man that died for men.