A Long Summer of Remembrance

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 30, 2004

For the World War II generation this will be a particularly special summer of remembrance.

We have had “special” remembrances before, and usually those are marking each decade removed from the anniversary of D-Day, what many consider the paramount moment of the world’s most destructive war.

What makes this sixth decade anniversary so noteworthy is that few of the men that hit the beaches or dropped from the sky on that summer day 60 years ago will be with us for the seventh one.

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By that time, almost all of the “Greatest Generation” will be gone.

To most Americans, Normandy is an event as much as it is a place.

And for so many of the men that fought there, it was and still is the defining moment in their lives. But there is much more to remember and recognize about World War II than the events of June 6, 1944.

That summer was marked by other significant actions that involved the courage and sacrifice of American forces in both the European and Pacific theaters of war, much of which often goes without thought or mention except by those that were involved.

For instance, on June 4th of that summer, the U.S. 5th Army under the command of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark entered Rome.

The campaign to the Italian capitol cost the Allied forces thousands of killed and wounded at places such as Anzio, Cisterna and Monte Cassino.

The names of these bloody places were quickly overshadowed when Allied forces landed at beaches named Omaha and Utah.

Sixty years later the veterans that fought in Italy have faded into the shadows of most Americans’ memories.

The summer of 1944 was also pivotal in the war in the South Pacific as U.S. Marines hit the beaches too.

On June 15th, the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions landed on the island of Saipan.

In the first two weeks of combat almost 10,000 Marines were killed, wounded or missing.

By the end of the battle the Marine casualty rate was 25 percent.

The battle for Saipan was significant not only because the island had airfields that put Japan within range of American B-29 bombers known as the Superfortresses, but also because it was the first island where American forces came in contact with Japanese civilians and witnessed their fanatical resolve.

Thousands of Japanese civilians participated in the defense of the island and, when faced with defeat, Japanese men, women and children committed suicide by jumping off a steep, ocean-side cliff into shark-infested waters rather than surrender to the Americans.

In all, it is estimated that 8,000 of the 22,000 civilians died.

As the battle for Saipan wound down, U.S. forces invaded the island of Tinian located less than five miles south of Saipan.

Tinian also had an airfield from which the huge B-29’s could strike Japan.

It was from Tinian that the Enola Gay lifted off to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Not only was Tinian the launching point for the first use of atomic weapons, it was also the first place that napalm bombs were used.

Just as many Americans are unfamiliar with the battles in Italy and the South Pacific, many may be unaware of the naval war underway in 1944.

Yet this summer thousands of World War II Navy veterans marked the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Philippines Sea, the largest carrier versus carrier battle in history. This battle, which is sometimes referred to as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” resulted in the virtual annihilation of the Japanese carrier-based air forces and the destruction of the Japanese inner line of defense which was protecting the islands from U.S. bombers.

By the end of the long summer of ’44, American forces were looking into Germany, preparing to slug their way to Berlin against what many believed was a rapidly deteriorating German army.

In the South Pacific, U.S. land forces were in control of the Philippines again and American bombers were lifting off from Saipan, Guam, and Tinian to pound the Japanese home islands.

Yet, while Japanese air and naval forces had suffered staggering losses, no one in the South Pacific, especially those that had witnessed the fanaticism of Japanese civilians on Saipan, had any illusions about the death and destruction that lay ahead in their march to Tokyo.

Perhaps D-Day has come to represent the sacrifices of all the veterans of all the battlegrounds in Europe and the South Pacific, a sort of collective memory for so many history-challenged Americans.

But for those that fought, their memories are specific to times and places marked forever 60 years ago this summer.

If you have had the opportunity to know any of these brave veterans, it might be a good time to sit down with them and let them tell you their story, their battles, their piece of the whole which made up the war that kept us free.

We should all honor these courageous Americans by reflecting on their efforts during this summer of remembrance as we are all, without doubt, marked forever by their sacrifices.