Listen to the Story

Submitters name: Norm Rust

Age Grouping: All Ages

Date Written:

In 2004, our nation rectified a nearly sixty year-old wrong.  Last year, we apologized and reflected anew, thankful that, at last, things had been made right.  May 8, 2005 commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War  II in Europe; August 14 and September 2 did the same for the campaign in the Pacific.  As the calendar again turns and our opportunities to express our gratitude slip with the sands of time, may we truly listen to their tale of inspiration and triumph.

     Sixteen million Americans served in the varied branches of the armed forces between 1941 – 1945.  Millions more on the home front contributed to the war effort, uniting together to turn this land, in the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, into “a great arsenal of democracy.”  During the war years, the United States of America produced 5,777 merchant ships, 1,556 naval vessels, 299,293 aircraft, 634,569 jeeps, 88,410 tanks, 2,383,311 support vehicles, 6,500,000 rifles, 40,000,000,000 bullets and two atomic bombs.

     As those two testaments to the destructive power of mankind fell upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this awesome production machine was producing six times the armaments of Great Britain, more than sixty percent of the total munitions of the allied powers, and forty percent of all the world’s arms.  At war’s end, the scope of America’s power and possessions was overwhelming; yet, in spite of this truth, she used her extraordinary might not for conquest, but for liberation.  As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, in 1945, “…the United States stands, at this moment, at the summit of the world.”
     Having noted the vastness of her riches and magnanimity, America’s most precious contribution to the effort to save the world from tyranny was none of these.  It was the costly sacrifice of 405,399 of her sons upon the altar of freedom.  Additionally, over 500,000 young men returned home physically maimed with wounds that would be lifelong reminders of the horrors of war.  Untold numbers also carried with them emotional scars that seared deeply – not into the flesh, but into the tender soul of the soldier.  As we, with reverent gaze, examine such offerings of life and pain, it is altogether proper that we also listen to the story of what these men did.  It must be told, heeded, and written on our hearts, every word.

     What had met the children of this nation’s most challenged generation was, quite simply, the greatest catastrophe in the history of the world.  Over fifty million men, women, and children perished between 1939 – 1945 – over twenty million Russians alone.  All were victims of the hate and death-filled ideologies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  What our humble heroes, who overcame and conquered such evil, have now been honored with is the first national memorial dedicated to all those who served this nation at its moment of extreme peril.

     This monument stands as a silent witness to our devotion to freedom and a poignant reminder of the everlasting love, honor, and respect in which its defenders are held.  Sadly, its realization  was almost six decades too late.  The living members of the generation which honored us with their service are now dying, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission, at a rate of over 1,100 per day – there are less than four million still living.  Sorrowfully, many will never walk its hallowed environs, established fittingly within the presence of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.  Indeed now, between that which honors the father who saved the nation at its birth and the father who saved her unto its new birth of freedom, rises a tribute to the children who saved her in the mid-life of her greatness.

     Many of them will never see or know of this cherished place; but alas, they already saw and they already knew.  They knowingly saw the shadow of danger in the brightness of their youth and they went, responding to the calling of their time, fulfilling their duty and their destiny with distinction.  They most assuredly knew something of what Civil War brother-in-arms Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. reflected upon when he wrote, “If there is any part of your life where you should have been and did what you should have done it is in the great Olympiad of ’61 to ’65.  What have you felt or looked upon since that is not pitifully small in comparison?  In our youth, our hearts were touched with fire.  It is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

     Deep within their being, they would also concur with Shakespeare’s Henry V, who roused his countrymen to battle thusly, “Whoever does not have the stomach for this fight, let him depart.  Give him money to speed his departure since we wish not to die in that man’s company.  Whoever lives past today and comes home safely will rouse himself every year on this day, show his neighbor his scars, and tell embellished stories of all their great feats of battle.  These stories will teach his son and from this day until the end of the world we shall be remembered.  We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for whoever has shed his blood with me shall be my brother.  And those men afraid to go will think themselves lesser men as they hear of how we fought and died together.”

     Indeed they saw and they knew.  Certainly, however, it is even more important for children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to come and ponder, awe-inspired by their courage and accomplishments.  They must learn that these, our heroes, in the words of historian Steven Ambrose, “…did more to help spread democracy around the world than any other generation in history.  They knew the difference between right and wrong and didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed.  So, they fought and won and we, all of us, for all succeeding generations must be forever profoundly grateful.”

     Ironically, the memorial serves as a deathless reminder of all those who gave themselves in death that this nation’s posterity and the posterity of so many other lands might know the blessings of liberty.  Let it be our hope, as it was Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s for Gettysburg, that it be a place where “…reverent men and women from afar, and generations which know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them shall come to ponder and dream; and lo! The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

     Gratefully, the vision is passing into the souls of America’s current sons, clearly exhibited in the words, life, and death of twenty-seven year-old former National Football League star Sgt. Pat Tillman, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Army Ranger Regiment, killed in a firefight in Afghanistan by friendly fire and posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.  He once stated, shortly after September 11, 2001,  “I play football and it just seems so unimportant compared to everything that’s taken place.  I feel guilty even having this interview.  My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a thing.  I’ve always thought about Pearl Harbor and the people…and what they were going through…their screaming and the passion they exuded and how they lost their lives.  I think of stuff like that.  I imagine I’ll probably have a few other things to think about now.  Maybe a fireman running up those stairs.”

     Upon learning of his story, most of his fellow countrymen would wonder how Sgt. Tillman could walk away from a 1.2 million dollar annual contract to place himself, compensated at a small fraction of that amount, in a foreign, hostile land replete with mortal peril.  For Sgt. Tillman, however, the question had always been, in light of his forefathers and fellow warriors, “How could he not?”  One wonders, as his life waned on that fire-filled hill, did his mind wax with thoughts of fulfilled purpose – of one’s conscience reconciled to one’s duty?  Truly, monuments to courage and honor are erected of marble and granite, but let us never forget that they first rise to soaring heights from the seeds of sacrifice watered by the blood of the fallen.

    In a Sports Illustrated piece published after Sgt. Tillman’s death, it was recorded that Elizabeth McKenrick, wife of 4th Ranger Training Battalion Commander Terry McKenrick, wisely directed her nine year-old’s heart and every American hearthstone to this quintessential patriot’s grave.  Generally, she does not allow her children to watch news regarding the war for fear that they will worry for their father; but when she saw the reports about Sgt. Tillman, she called the young one to her side:  “Listen,” she said.  “Listen to the story of what this man did.”

     Listen indeed.  And remember,  all of them.  Those of the greatest generation and those of every great generation.  One of the Almighty’s many blessings upon our heritage is the unbroken line of heroes that wind through the halls of our history.  As we turn to look at them with those eyes of reverence, shrouded in tears, we can almost see them, resplendent in abiding youth.  They seem to be calling, beckoning us to meet them outside – within the gates of the hallowed grounds ‘neath which they reside.  One such place, the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, France, is home to 10,943 boys whose sodded beds and immaculate marble, star and cross headboards all look west toward the land they loved and left, never to return.  In a chapel there, midst them all, a message is inscribed.  May God impel us all to engrave it upon our hearts and minds, never to forget:

     “Think not only upon their passing,” it reads.  “Remember the glory of their spirit.”

Norm Rust graduated with a degree in history from the Univ. of Md., Baltimore County.  He lives in Halethorpe and is currently available to conduct workshops and seminars in American history and Christian citizenship.  For more information, Norm can be reached at 410-242-1329 or at

Age Grouping: all ages