On one of the last evenings of his life, I asked my father what he remembered about the day World War II finally ended in Europe. He was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed on a base in Foggia, Italy.
It was 75 years ago this week.
“What did you do when you heard there were no more missions you had to fly?” I asked.
“Volunteered to go to the Pacific,” my father said.
His answer surprised me. He never romanticized the war. He’d seen enough that he spent the rest of his life not wanting to talk about it very much.
My father was the most modest individual I ever knew. I’m ashamed of myself for not pressing him more about what his war experience was like, so he might have known how much pride I had in him.
But when I’d ask about it, he’d inevitably say, “Who can remember?”
I knew he was an 18-year-old college kid when he went in, and a sergeant when he came out. He dropped out of his freshman year at New York University the day after Pearl Harbor. They made him a gunner. He survived 18 combat missions, many when he didn’t think he’d come back alive.
There were very few stories I was able to squeeze out of my father, Lionel Olesker, and I mention this now because of this week marking the 75-year anniversary of the official end of the war in Europe — and the knowledge that all of the survivors of that fighting are now into their 90s and leaving us faster than ever.
Please sit with your fathers and your grandfathers while they can still tell their stories.
They were a remarkable generation. They grew up in the long Depression of the 1930s, whose awful jobless numbers we never saw again until the current crisis.
But our generation’s economic troubles, painful as they are, are barely a month old. Theirs lasted more than a decade.
They were pulled out of the Depression only because the war arrived.
“Of course, we saw it coming for a long time,” my father said years later.
He remembered, as a teenager in 1940, sitting in his parents’ apartment in The Bronx one night, “and the newsboys were running down Findlay Avenue and screaming. You could hear them from the open window in the living room. ‘Extra! Extra! Hitler persecuting the Jews.’
“I can still remember the chill, in the middle of a spring night, 10 o’clock. It was the New-York Mirror. ‘Hitler persecuting the Jews!’ I had such a chill run through me.”
That was a year or so before America entered the war, and they only knew the barest details of the coming Holocaust. Three weeks ago, Apr. 15, marked the 75th anniversary of a British medical detachment discovering the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, in the north German woods, where they found 60,000 starving, dying prisoners and 13,000 corpses stacked on the ground.
A London Times correspondent was with them. He sent back a dispatch that began, “I have something to report that lies beyond the imagination of mankind.”
Meanwhile, millions struggled to keep themselves alive. When I asked my father about his bombing missions, he usually kept the stories pretty terse.
“Sometimes,” he said, “we’d fly up to 800 miles before we got to the bomb site, and then we’d have to fly our way out.”
“Those must have been happy trips back,” I said.
“Not really,” he said softly. “We were exhausted.”
“Yes, but alive.”
“But spent,” he said. “It took so much out of you. The tension was unreal.”
Then, he’d quickly change the subject.
But 75 years ago this week, when the fighting in Europe ended, my father volunteered to go to the Pacific. Instead, three months later, America dropped the atomic bomb, and the war against Japan was over.
Millions of troops remained where they were. There were so many waiting to go home, the backup lasted many months.
My parents had gotten married in 1943. My father shipped overseas a year later, not knowing that my mother was pregnant with me. Months after the war’s end, my father got word that his father, my grandfather, Max, was dying. The base commander sent my father home on a military transport.
My mother and I were in Atlantic City, with my father’s parents. I was six months old. Nobody knew my father had flown into Miami and then taken a train up the East Coast. Suddenly, Grandpa Max sat up in bed and said, “Liney’s home.”
“We thought he was crazy,” my mother said. But then, she looked out the window, and from up the street came this skinny guy in a uniform, and it was my father, home from the war.
Are there four better words — “home from the war” — in the English language?
I wish I’d gotten more words out of my father. If yours is still around, 75 years later, seize the moment for a little chat, will you?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).