During the three weeks I spent hiking overseas this summer with three German women, we got to know one another. Antje, who grew up in East Germany, was the quiet one. Ina, who came from a village near the French border, was the laughing one determined to enjoy her holiday come what may. And Sonja was the youngest who, with an enviable command of the English language, was not only capable of explaining things to me but also willing. Walking more than 200 miles together, we did a lot of talking.
One day, I wondered whether she and other Germans considered Americans to be war-like, given that her countrymen had long labored under that stereotype while our countrymen were the ones wielding the fiercest weapons. That seemed unfair. Surprisingly, Sonja said she was grateful to Americans for giving her country democracy by defeating Hitler and keeping many Germans alive after World War II ended.
Allied bombing had left West Germany not only with shortages of food but also a crippled transportation system for distributing it. Within a few years of the war’s end, the United States had organized food aid that saved millions of lives. In 1948 and 1949 the U.S. airlifted food to West Berlin over a Soviet blockade.
I wrote her answer in my notes so that I could relay it later to some World War II veterans who deserve to know that their service made a difference. Only 855,070 U.S. vets remain, and they’re dying at a rate of about 492 a day, according to the National WWII Museum.
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Back in Raleigh, I told M.H. Green Jr., 90, what Sonja had said about the war’s legacy. Green was just 18 when he left North Carolina on the USS Rich bound for the coast of Normandy. His ship was sunk during the D-Day invasion, but when his wounds healed, Green was assigned to the USS Texas bound for the Pacific, where he served during the liberation of the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. That’s where Green and his shipmates were when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs that finally ended World War II.
What he said was as surprising as what Sonja had said: “We were actually fighting for all those people, too. We knew it was the governments doing the fighting.” That was confirmed for Green back home in conversations with Germans he met in business.
“I’ve never been to Normandy,” he said, “but if I ever did, I’d go to the graves of my shipmates first, then to those Germans’. None of us really wanted that war.”
Nevertheless, the courageous response of Green’s generation to the nation’s call to arms preserved freedom for Americans. How often do we, who have the luxury of taking our freedom for granted, stop to remember those who have risked their lives to keep us free? It’s humbling to think that modern Germans might have more gratitude for our soldiers than we have.
Veterans Day is a good time to correct that.
Carol Frey, a former editorial writer at The News & Observer, lives in Raleigh.