Lessons from WWII: Living with risk in the age of terrorism

Robert Huddleston in 1944
Robert Huddleston in 1944

In January 1945, I boarded a train in Paris bound for Brussels, Belgium. Three colleagues and I were replacement pilots assigned to an Allied base east of the Belgian capital. The Battle of the Bulge was still on, though the Germans had been stopped and pushed back a considerable distance.

What surprised us on boarding was that the train was crammed with civilians, presumably Belgians headed home. Granted, the German ground attack had all but ended, but V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets were still targeting Belgian cities. Under these conditions, we guessed that Belgian civilians were willing to assume the risk of bombs and rockets as an acceptable price for returning home after being driven out by the 1940 German invasion and occupation.

London was the principle target of Hitler’s so-called revenge weapons first launched in September 1944. But having experienced the German Blitz, the massive bombing campaign in the fall of 1940, Londoners took this new threat in stride. “Remain Cool and Carry On” was more than a slogan – it was a day and night reality.

The Brits were not the only risk-takers in London as the flying bombs and rockets rained down on a 24/7 schedule. American military personnel, most stationed in a safe environment in the English countryside, yearned for that coveted pass to London, where many American civilians were posted: diplomats, journalists, Red Cross volunteers, USO entertainers, even civil service employes working for government agencies.

Mary Lee Settle, a young West Virginian employed by the U.S. Office of War Information, recorded her wartime experiences in her memoir, “Learning to Fly”:

“On September 8 (1944), I was walking in Soho with a friend when the ground under us heaved and was still again. ... (The V-2 rockets) were terrible. ... There was no warning, if you heard the explosion you were safe. They killed hundreds more people than the V-1 bombs had done.”

Most nights Mary Lee slept in the basement of her apartment building.

Those in the U.S. who do such research have declared that the chance of any person becoming a victim of a terrorist attack is no greater than that presented by a drive on a highway. Yet many Americans weaving and speeding down our teeming highways must be assured that any risk associated with a terrorist attack must be eliminated whatever the cost – an attitude I suspect the World War II generation, both here and abroad, would scoff at.

Can you imagine an American GI refusing a pass to London because some risk was involved? Or a Belgian civilian shunning a trip home because bombs and rockets still presented a threat?

Life is an adventure we are told while growing up. And adventures, be they at home or abroad, during peace or war, involve risk. And living without risk is living without freedom.

Robert Huddleston of Chapel Hill was at risk in Europe during World War II. Today, he avoids I-40 during rush hours.