Gathering at memorial with veterans is a humbling education

WASHINGTON – History could never fully instruct me about the greater good of World War II.

Even with a personal tie – an uncle killed in the Battle of the Bulge – I could never wholly grasp how collective sacrifice had defeated the absolutist concepts of tyranny and genocide.

Despite the threat of terrorism, I live in a relatively bountiful era, and thus carry an improper historical perspective.

But this weekend, an interactive textbook of sorts opened its pages and generously allowed me to comprehend, piece by piece, how a nation and its allies changed the world. This country finally constructed a fitting monument to its World War II veterans, and I had the privilege to follow 35 of them – New Hampshire residents – and record their thoughts.

Watching them and several thousand other veterans gather to humbly recollect their moral struggles, tactical maneuvers, military pranks and personal losses gave me a much-needed sense of understanding and acceptance.

Everyone had a moving story, even those who served stateside, protecting these shores or tending to the wounded at hospitals. Some who served overseas but saw no action quickly acknowledged this fact, but just as quickly declared they were proud to wear a uniform.

Frank Flanders typified the veteran visiting here. A Milford resident, Flanders knew that when he finally got to walk in the sweeping plaza of the memorial he would think only of his two older brothers, Harold and Ralph, who fought in the war before he could enlist.

After watching Harold leave for combat on a train, Flanders soon after lied about his age on his enlistment papers and patrolled the Atlantic on the USS Roy Hale.

“I figured I would help those guys out,” he said of his brothers.

Veterans like Flanders deserved a tribute such as the National World War II memorial decades ago. More than 12 million U.S. servicemen and women have died since war’s end, and not all of the survivors, in many cases elderly and infirm, could attend this weekend’s ceremonies.

Although most everyone appreciated Saturday’s official dedication – replete with swing tunes and an F-16 flyby – many sun-beaten and tired veterans could not wait until nightfall when the memorial reopened to the public.

They came back Sunday and slowly absorbed the two 43-foot arched pavilions representing the Atlantic and Pacific war fronts, the 56 granite pillars recognizing every U.S. state and territory, the 4,000 gold stars memorializing the more than 400,000 killed in combat, and the tranquil reflecting pool and fountains.

They shook hands with veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars, and listened to expressions of appreciation from people of all ages. They observed war orphans like George Connor – who at 7 lost his father, Roger, in the Battle of the Bulge – place a black-and-white photo of his dad on the memorial.

Some bumped into Steve Kanyusik, who at 83 still nicely fits into his Navy whites. Photographing the memorial, Kanyusik recalled how he won the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for recording with his camera two suicide bombers and other activities on the USS Manila Bay despite second-degree burns and shrapnel wounds.

A youthful Brian Taniguchi, a Navy ensign also wearing his uniform, approached Kanyusik and posed for a picture.

“It’s an honor to be here with everyone,” the 20-year-old Taniguchi said.

This mingling of young with old made this occasion more meaningful than the official ceremony.

Young adults toting cell phones or wearing designer clothing stood in awe, simultaneously admiring the monument and the monumental people themselves. It was like Lincoln coming alive at his memorial and dispensing wisdom.

My generation actually needs this memorial more than the Greatest Generation does.

We need to see the inscriptions marking the Battle of Midway, D-Day, and the other assorted bloody conflicts that ultimately spelled V-J Day and V-E Day.

We need to recognize that not only did they triumph over a rising tide of global oppression, but they also cemented our nation in the post-war era, planting the seeds of social and economic success.

Not everyone could share in my opportunity, befriending these veterans at this overdue celebration. But most everyone can make the equally fulfilling gesture and thank them.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or