There Were Others

Charles A. Kohlhaas | June 7, 2024
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I write this on D-Day with the commemorations playing on television. These all note this is a special commemorative time: 80 years since D-Day and probably the last with living veterans in attendance. I have visited the invasion beaches, Pointe du Hoc, and the cemeteries. A cousin’s husband was in the 82nd Airborne. He jumped into that night, fought his way to Germany, and helped liberate Buchenwald. He came home with a Distinguished Service Cross and greatly relieved he would not need to jump into the night over Japan. 

Which brings me to a few observations, in no particular order of significance. 

On the same day as D-Day, US forces marched into Rome. Those guys already had been fighting since the landings in North Africa a year and a half earlier. They had fought across North Africa, then Sicily, then landed on mainland Italy for a brutal campaign. Their entry to Rome was largely unnoticed; overshadowed by D-Day. Some landed in southern France, most fought their way into Northern Italy, crossed the Alps at the Brenner Pass to link up with the forces crossing Bavaria. As a young engineer, I worked with many veterans of that long, tough, and largely forgotten campaign. We need to recognize that the people who landed on D-Day deserve their accolades, but they did not win the war single-handed.   

And also there was the war in the Pacific, where US WWII involvement started.  Americans there were fighting for two-and-half years before D-Day against a merciless, tough, dedicated enemy in some of the worst terrain and climate in the world. A cousin noted that, on New Guinea, everybody shot at everybody else; he had been shot at with everything from blowgun darts to 18-inch battleship bombardment. 

I grew up in Long Beach, California on the flank of an oilfield. Long Beach had a large harbor adjoining Los Angeles Harbor. Part of Long Beach Harbor was a Navy base, a major repair port. Early in the war, many shot-up ships came in for repairs and unloaded parts of their crews to the local Navy Hospital. 

Except for the aforementioned cousin’s husband, all other members of the family and many neighbors went to the Pacific War. Some of them were fighting in early 1942 in some of the worst jungles on earth and they were still fighting when Japan surrendered three and half years later – the biggest surprise of the war. 

Another forgotten aspect of the war is the invasion of Japan. The invasion of Kyushu was scheduled for November 1,1945 and was planned to be three times the size of D-Day. The invasion of Honshu the following March was planned to be five times the size of D-Day. Casualties would not have been in the thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands. All the planning, supplies, materials, personnel which were assembled for those invasions were not needed. With many friends, neighbors, and members of the family in the Pacific war, some already fighting for two or three years and part of the invasion forces, we expected only about half would come home. They all did; thank you, Robert Oppenheimer and friends. His contributions are about the only feature of the Pacific war many now remember and they’re controversial to some who do not remember the alternate path and what its consequences would have been.   

Many of the parades and commemorative ceremonies on national holidays feature some of the last living veterans of World War II, as did the ceremonies for D-Day. They remind me of parades and commemorative ceremonies when I was a boy during WWII, 80 years ago. Those also featured some “last living veterans” from 80 years before – of the Civil War. During the Civil War, they probably had a few “last living veterans” of Yorktown, 80 years before. Apparently, we are on 80-year cycles between major upheavals.  

The young seem to know only two things about World II:  D-Day and Hiroshima. World Wars I and II ended the system of governance and rule by kings, queens, emperors, and aristocrats in Europe. World War II ended the system of colonial rule in Asia, which followed in Africa.

These wars were major upheavals with profound effects worldwide; they changed - everything.  D-Day was an important punctuation mark, but it should not obscure the all-consuming sweep, consequences, efforts, and sacrifices of the full epic story.