Tomorrow marks the 96th year that people around the world think about soldiers and war on November 11. In some countries, the day is known as Remembrance Day — in England, it is marked by a profusion of poppies in gardens, graveyards, and buttonholes. In the United States, it is Veterans Day. But 70 years ago, in 1944, November 11 was still known as Armistice Day to commemorate the armistice signed – at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” – in Compiégne, France to end the hostilities between the Allies and Germany in The Great War.
That Saturday in November of 1944 was the 27th Armistice Day, and involved the vantage point of a world at war (again) for many years. Writers at the Chicago Tribune took the opportunity look back and compare the achievements of U.S. fighting troops in World War I with those still fighting in World War II, and the comparison favored the doughboys of earlier years:
They entered combat in France within 13 months after we entered the war and finished the job 6 months later. We invaded Africa 11 months after Pearl Harbor, but we did not set foot on the soil of France for 30 months, and only now, 35 months after we started fighting, are we prepared for what everyone hopes will be the final blow against our European enemy.
The Tribune was no kinder when considering efforts on the homefront, noting that voluntary rationing had worked well in The Great War and “did not cause a tenth of the irritation and dislocation of supply that compulsory rationing has caused in this war.” The editorial also points to negative comparisons regarding wartime production and financing, concluding that “We should honor the veterans of 1917-18 today. They made the present victory possible and in many respects they did a better job than has been done in this war.”
The Norwalk News decided to look forward on Armistice Day of 1944 in ways both sobering and hopeful. In remembering the celebration that marked the actual armistice in 1918, the paper opined:
There is no such joy today—but there is solace in the conviction that this time the conditions which cause wars are not only possible but probable of correction. There is sorrow in many homes today—but there is also a feeling of resignation that the price has been necessary and that high as it is in the sacrifices being made of and by our young stalwarts it is not too high providing the horror of war is not allowed to again visit itself upon a world which, in its human failures, is vulnerable when warped minds lose sight of the truth that love for neighbor must equal that of self.
I’ll leave it for another time to debate the ultimate truth of these backward and forward assessments, though it’s hard to argue that we have learned our requisite lessons about the horrors of war. What I will note, though, is that these statements from 1944 both seemed to accept that the war was coming to a close and that it was appropriate to draw conclusions about how the effort had compared to the past or how it could propel us into a more moral future.
But the war wasn’t over. Indeed, for my Dad and many others, it was about to begin.
On November 11, 1944, my father – Pfc Joe Ted Miller – wrote a letter to his folks back in Urbana, Illinois. The letter is headed with “Somewhere on the East Coast” and was written from Camp Shanks in New York. He had arrived there with the 254th Regiment of the 63rd Infantry Division several days before. He had been in the Army for about ten months, stationed for training at Camp Blanding in Florida and Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi.
Dad wrote over 300 letters home during his time in the army – I write about them in my book, War Makes Men of Boys: A Soldier’s World War II – and the one written on November 11, 1944 isn’t particularly noteworthy. He talks about the food (“excellent” – “steak yesterday & today” – but still eaten out of messkit), about the PX, about the very cold and sweet drinking water, about money and mail, about his work typing and filing, and about winning two dollars on a bet on Army against Notre Dame in football. A lot of the usual stuff of his letters, but the closing of the letter, before his vertically arranged “Bye, Love, Bud”, shows that he is well aware of the enormity of what he is stepping into for the coming months:
“I can’t say what I’m doing – but in my mind is my constant love for you.”
Three days after Armistice Day, 1944, Dad celebrated his 19th birthday. About a week after that, he boarded the troopship Saturnia at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After eleven days at sea, the ship passed through the Straits of Gibraltar under blackout conditions. Two days later, the Saturnia slid up to the makeshift wharves of Marseilles, France. My father’s war was just beginning.
Through that winter and into the next spring, the 254th struggled in the freezing battles for the Colmar Pocket in France, was one of the first units to break through the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine, and occupied German villages in the march toward the end of the European War. Dad spent time at the front with a radio on his back, as a runner between units, and as a clerk behind the lines. He earned commendations including a Bronze Star. And then he remained in Europe for months after the war ended, waiting to gather up enough points to ship home.
Every Veterans Day gives us the opportunity to look back and to honor the men and women who have served in the military during wartime and peace. We also have the opportunity to look forward and hope that we can learn from the experiences of war to forge a more peaceful world.
But during many Veterans Days, there are also men and women living in the present time of war. Men and women who are nervous or even downright scared, and who realize that they are not fighting for any high moral purpose but just to get home again. Men and women who might close a letter – or an email, or a text, or a Skype call – with “I can’t say what I’m doing – but in my mind is my constant love for you.”