Tulsa World (Oklahoma) Newspaper Article..... June 30th, 2000|
by Cokie & Steven Roberts, New Orleans, LA.
We were strolling through the new D-Day museum here (New Orleans) recently and overhead a young boy say to his father with awe in his voice: "Grandpa was really there?" Yes, answered the man. "Did he ever talk about it?" the boy wanted to know. No, replied his dad.
That's a common story. Many veterans of World War II didn't talk about their experiences, even those with uncommon stories to tell. As James Bradley, author of the new bestseller "Flags of Our Fathers," puts it: "They didn't consider themselves heroes because they did what they were trained to do."
Well, they were wrong. They were heroes. And the first July 4th of the new millennium is a good moment to reflect on a generation that is rapidly dying off----more than 1,000 a day by official count. Fortunately, some of them are telling their stories before they leave the scene, and wartime history and nostalgia is a booming industry.
The D-Day museum here has been jammed from the moment it opened its doors on June 6th. Bradley's book, the story of his father and the five other men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima, rocketed to the top of the bestseller list. Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," has been a bestseller for almost two years.
One reason for this boom is that a culture consumed by self-promotion is stunned by the self-effacement of the "greatest generation." Today heroes have movie deals and endorsement contracts. James Bradley's father retreated to small-town Wisconsin after the war, where he ran a funeral home and never mentioned his role in the most famous photograph ever taken.
Perhaps that's why the cultural elite was so blind to the power of his story. James Bradley was tuned down by 27 publishers before finding one, and as he explains their massive misjudgment: "They looked at it logically, and this is an emotional situation."
He's right, and many of those emotions are derided in the sophisticated salons of Manhattan as simplistic and sentimental. Bradley tells of Ira Hays, a Pima Indian from Arizona, who defied a fearful mother to enlist in the Marines. "Mom," he told her, "I have to go and protect you."
And that's no the whole story. The battlefield heroism of Ira Hayes and 'Doc' Bradley, James' father, was matched on the home front. The D-Day museum contains some wonderfully evocative posters urging folks to buy war bonds or ration gas or save cooking grease.
Our generation, born during and right after the war, has never experienced the sense of pride and purpose that bound the nation together during the war years. And we miss it.
But any celebration of national virtue must be honest about national failings. The D-Day museum contains graphic exhibits on segregation in the armed forces, and points out that black troops were only allowed into combat after white units were depleted by casualties.
The deepest stain on the national honor during World War II was the internment of Japanese-Americans. And President Clinton recently tried to erase that blemish by awarding the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian-Americans more that 50 years after their bravery helped save a country that had treated them so shabbily.
Rudy Tokiwa came to Washington to witness the medal ceremony. A Bronze Star winner himself, Tokiwa still burns with anger when he remembers the day his family was rousted out of their home in Salinas, CA., by government agents and sent to a camp in Arizona. Tokiwa's father had fought in World War I, and when agents found his uniform packed away in a trunk, "they threw it on the floor and stepped all over it."
Tokiwa was 16 when army recruiters showed up at the internment camps looking for volunteers, and they were surprised at the turnout. The camp elders, Tokiwa recalls, met and decided "we should volunteer to prove ourselves".
Prove themselves they did, but only seven of the 22 medal winners are still alive, and Rudy Tokiwa is still not mollified. "It's too bad," he says, that the honor is "so late" in coming.
It is "so late" for so many of the vets, but not for their kids and grandkids who hunger for tales of their own history. So here's a good way to celebrate the 224th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence----retelling and remembering the stories of those who defended that document with their lives.