By the time I was 12 I had read Walter Shirer’s definitive 1,000-page The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich — for the second time. It was the beginning of my life-long obsession with the events leading up to, and including, World War II.
I am fortunate I was to be able to hear about the war from people who actually experienced it. That is, when they were willing to talk about it.
I found countless things intriguing about WWII. It brought larger-than-life characters onto the stage. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a renaissance man, an author, painter and orator whowas living in the political wilderness, his warnings about Adolf Hitler widely ignored.
Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected to an unprecedented third term by promising peace while inching America toward war. Joseph Stalin and Hitler were pure evil, one madder than the other. Then there were the generals — MacArthur, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel, Zhukov — all colorful, brilliant and perhaps a little crazy. Atop this pantheon of military leaders were Gens. Marshall and Eisenhower, both perfect men at the perfect time.
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As I have grown older, I have become more captivated by the countless stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. This year, I read Pvt. E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed. Simply, but eloquently, Sledge describes the horrific and desensitizing daily routine of Marines fighting in the Pacific Theater.
Combat troopers like Sledge have told us they were fighting for each other, not their country. But through a unity of purpose that we can only dream of today, collectively they did save Western civilization. The real miracle of Sledge’s story is how he, like many other veterans, turned their backs on hatred and relearned to love their fellow man.
The true stories of individual heroes in military engagements read like a novel and can leave you feeling a range of emotions, from wonderment to sadness. When I finished Flag of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, I was in tears. Bradley chronicles the story of his father, a naval corpsman, and four Marines raising a flag atop Mt. Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima.
A picture by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal immediately became iconic. It was printed nationally and raised the morale of the American people who were exhausted by three years of total war. President Truman brought the surviving flag-raisers home to tour America and raise money to fund the war effort.
We did not know about post-traumatic stress disorder then, and we could not possibly understand how tormenting the tour was for the surviving flag-raisers. They felt guilty being home instead of with their comrades and did not want to be treated as heroes. For them, the real heroes were those who did not make it off the island. The battle for Iwo Jima lasted 36 days and cost more than 6,500 American lives.
Because there were two very different pictures of the flag-raising, with two different sets of men, both taken on the same day, there has always been an aura of uncertainty about which five were actually in the photograph, which became the basis of the Marine Memorial in Washington, D.C.
As a result of a recent Smithsonian Channel study, the U.S. Marine Corps announced an inquiry into the matter.
Bradley, in his relentless and noble pursuit of the true narrative recently stated that his father was not one of the five in Rosenthal’s picture.
I would respectfully say to Bradley and the U.S. Marine Corps that it is OK to let these men rest. While the truth is always a worthy goal, the issue is moot. Just boys and girls, they went off to war and inspired generations of Americans who followed.
In this year of overheated presidential rhetoric, this is one controversy we do not need. Who the five men of the Iwo Jima flag-raising were is less important than the fact that they are a comforting reminder that we are capable of being one nation with a single heartbeat.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.