Several recent issues of the Alumnus have included articles related to World War II. With the 70th anniversary on June 6 of D-Day, it seemed appropriate to talk about the continuing significance and impact of the war and its veterans. We have included articles in the magazine because alumni who fought in the war are becoming fewer and fewer, and they should be commemorated during their lifetimes.
Fred Brown, a freelance writer for the Alumnus and retired reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel, has spent a great deal of his career writing about the war and its veterans and families. I asked him to explain why he thinks it’s important to keep writing about it.
“World War II was the greatest conflict in world history. America sent more than 16 million personnel to take part in the war in some fashion, either as combatants or in support roles.
Of that number, America lost 291,557 soldiers in battle. Today, there are just a little over one million World War II veterans still alive and the Department of Veterans Affairs says that by 2036, there will be no more of them,” Fred says. “We are losing the WWII vets at a rate of 550 per day. …I have read in other accounts that our WWII veterans are dying off at the rate of 1,500 per day.
“At any rate, the Greatest Generation is fading away before our eyes and for that reason, I know that it is important to listen to and to record their stories. When that generation is left for the history of the ages, an important voice will be silent, and we will have watched the disappearance of something precious to our understanding of who we are.”
My grandfathers did not fight in the war, and my father was born right before the war started. He grew up in middle Tennessee, where U.S. troops practiced maneuvers because the terrain was like western Europe. He worked at a bank early in his career with a man who was a glider pilot and survived D-Day. I can’t tell you how many hours of black-and-white footage I have seen of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. I know it must have been a frightening time for many families, but I am somewhat envious of the patriotism of the time and how everyone pitched in however they could.
Fred says one of his favorite stories he has written about veterans was about Command Sgt. Maj., Ben Franklin of Knoxville, who volunteered at age 17, by lying about his age. He fought in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, the Hurtgen Forest, Battle of the Bulge and on into Germany with the First Infantry Division. He landed on D-Day in Normandy at Omaha Beach where he was blown out of his landing craft. Fred says he returned to Paris, France, with Ben in 2009 for him to receive France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honor for his World War II service to France. The stories of Mr. Franklin and of others like him are important.
“Their stories are our stories,” says Fred. “And we need to hear them, over and over.”