• Ambrose
  • Bollinger
  • Merchant Marines

History Lesson

Japanese Flag Crew

One of the birthday gifts I received from my boyfriend was a collection of books by Stephen E. Ambrose, an author I had not yet experienced. The titles included, Undaunted CourageD-Day, and Citizen Soldiers. I started (and finished) reading Citizen Soldiers over the holidays. At the end of CitizenSoldier (not a spoiler alert), Ambrose speaks of the men he covered so graciously throughout the book with intuitive accuracy in stating,

“…these were the men who built modern America. They had learned to work together in the armed services in World War II. They had seen enough destruction; they wanted to construct. They built the Interstate Highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the suburbs (so scorned by the sociologists, so successful with the people), and more. They had seen enough killing; they wanted to save lives. They licked polio and made other revolutionary advances in medicine. They had learned in the army the virtues of a solid organization and teamwork, and the value of individual initiative, inventiveness, and responsibility. They developed the modern corporation while inaugurating revolutionary advances in science and technology, education and public policy.

The ex-GIs had seen enough war; they wanted peace. But they had also seen the evil of dictatorship; they wanted freedom. They had learned in their youth that the way to prevent war was to deter through military strength, and to reject isolationism for full involvement in the world. So they supported NATO and the United Nations and the Department of Defense. They had stopped Hitler and Tojo; in the 1950s they stopped Stalin and Khrushchev.

In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy described the men and women of this generation: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in the century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.”

— from Citizen Soldier by Stephen E. Ambrose
Bob and GIs
Pvt Robert Albright (middle), Okinawa, August 1945

A truer assessment of this generation has not been stated. In my opinion, this is the most relevant passage in the entire 492 pages of Citizen Soldier.

World leaders would be well-served to take a refresher course in our planet’s history. Unfortunately, I am unable to wave a wand to make this so. We are all on our own to appreciate the lessons from our nation’s (and that of the world) history. If we don’t do this, history will repeat itself.

Over the years, I have interviewed and spoken with close to 200 veterans (maybe more), most of whom served in WWII. Many of these men and women did not speak of their experiences until decades later. Once the floodgates began to open, healing began in earnest and their valuable perspectives were more clearly understood. Ambrose does an exceptional job of collecting the oral and written histories of men who served.

In Indiana, our war heroes include Dr. Duane E. Hodgin and Steve Hardwick for their contribution of written oral histories of Hoosiers who served. These men introduced me to many of the veterans who I have written about. Hardwick, after serving in the Army, earned a degree at Indiana State University and was profoundly impacted by Holocaust survivor and Mengele twin lab rat, Eva Mozes Kor. PBS aired a documentary on this remarkable woman. I am so grateful for Steve’s introductions to Eva, Andy, Bob, Brigit, Dale, Averitte, Johnny, Jimmy, and all of the veterans who have shared their exceptional stories with me.

Donald Bollinger
Donald Bollinger

One of them, Don Bollinger, who served with the Merchant Marines, sent me a beautiful letter of gratitude after a piece I wrote on him was published (he was the cover for the Broad Ripple Magazine, November 2014). The last part of his gushing letter reads:

“We all lovingly thank you for telling the present generation about the past that helped form the present. With enough love and compassion, the present might make a terrific future.”

He signed it, “Lots of Love, Don”.

I’m simply doing my part, Don. All of these stories, yours included, have merit and contain valuable life lessons.


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