In the US, Memorial Day is a time for honoring the heroes in our armed forces who have protected and defended us over the years. My father was one of them. He interrupted his electrical engineering studies at Georgia Tech to serve in WWII. A childhood injury to his left arm made him unfit for combat, but the army needed all hands, so he worked as a radio man in the communication tents during the re-occupation of France after the Germans were pushed back out. He would joke about how easy he had it in the army, but there were no easy posts in that fight. His service was as necessary as anyone’s, if less physically demanding.
My father told two stories about his time in the army that I remember. One took place during the cross-country march to Paris after his ship landed. The trip took several days, with hundreds of men from different units tramping along through the French countryside. My father became ill rather suddenly from what was most likely the flu. At one rest stop he sat down on the doorstep of a small country farmhouse and basically passed out. The rest of the troops moved on without realizing they were leaving a man behind. When the French couple opened their door and found an unconscious American serviceman on their stoop they took him in and cared for him until he was well enough to contact his unit. For years after the war he and the French couple exchanged letters.
The other story was about his time in Paris. As the Germans took over the country, the French burned their fields and destroyed their stores so that the Germans couldn’t have them, and the Germans destroyed whatever was left as they retreated from the Allies. Food was severely limited. The American soldiers, however, were well-supplied. My father and his buddies went to breakfast every morning and ate eggs, toast, ham, and fresh fruit. Actually, they mostly took the fresh fruit and stuffed it into their pockets. As they walked through the streets of Paris they would drop apples, oranges, and pears into baby carriages for the French families they were there to serve.
Both of these stories carry the same message for me. Even in the midst of war, people can reach across the barriers of language and culture to care for each other. My father’s compatriots are called the greatest generation, but I think people of any generation can do the same if called. We all have the greatness in us. Let us remember that on this Memorial Day, and all try to be the heroes we can be.