Project WWII: Voices of the Greatest Generation

Instructor thanks student for project work

by Dr. Larry Cebula


This year marked the 60th anniversary of the surrender of Germany, and the end of the Second World War — V.E., or Victory in Europe, Day.

It was nearly the final chapter in perhaps the greatest and most horrible struggle our nation has ever faced.

Veterans of World War II sometimes say they fought in "The Big One," and indeed they did. World War II involved more nations, killed more people and did more to reshape the political structure of the world than any conflict in human history.

More than 70 nations took part in the war, and 70 million people served in the various armed forces. Seventeen million people died — soldiers and civilians alike. The old power blocks were destroyed by the war.

Never again would England, France or Germany be regarded as superpowers, and Japan's domination of much of Asia was shattered. No one suffered more than the Jews of Europe.

Six and a half million Jews had lived in Europe before the war. When it was over, six million of these had died in Hitler's "Final Solution." Finally, the end of World War II was the start of the atomic age.

The war took young men from the four states and sent them to remote corners of the world — to fight the good fight against fascism.

From Pearl Harbor to Normandy, from the bloody beaches of Iwo Jima to the deadly skies over Berlin, these men grew up in the Great Depression and went straight to war. Not all of them returned. Some of those who did are interviewed in the following pages.

Last fall my student, Dylan Welker, came to me with an idea for a project. He would locate some World War II veterans, interview and film them and assemble a short documentary.

I signed on as his advisor and didn't give it another thought. But the project quickly snowballed — as good ideas do — and soon we had contacted more than 50 area veterans, with leads for many more, far more veterans than one student could handle. Welker has actually delayed his graduation to complete as many interviews as possible. It has really been a privilege for me to work with such a conscientious young person.

This project would have ended with Welker's graduation this fall, except for the intervention and support of Congressman Roy Blunt.

His offer of additional support has enabled the project to continue to collect the memories of American veterans, from World War II and other conflicts.

There is an African proverb that says, "When an old man or woman passes away, a library burns to the ground." With the Congressman's help, we are saving those volumes with their stories of heroism and sacrifice.

The stories in these pages are extraordinary. Here, you will read the stories of Normandy Beach and Tarawa, of deadly flights over Germany and Japan, of victory and of defeat.

Because of these men's heroism, no subsequent generation of Americans has had to face a situation quite as dire. In these stories, we honor these men's sacrifice.