Citizen As Soldier

Peter W. Schramm

October 1, 1999

September 21, 1999. Winston Churchill once said of us: “The United States is like a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lit under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.”

This was certainly true of U.S. involvement in World War II. We were hesitant to get in it, but once it was made clear that heads of state had become gangsters, the fire was lit and there was never any doubt about the outcome. It is amazing what free men can do once they decide to act. The peaceful democracy mobilized, men and women labored, toy factories now produced the stuff of war. The citizens then became warriors, and great deeds were commonplace. Even heroic deeds were seen.

Recently, much has been written about that war and the age. There are books on the era, some merely popular, some very good. Newspapers, magazines, and television are filled with talk of nostalgia for that period. War movies (of sorts) became popular again. And real events are now named after fictional characters (as in the “private Ryan generation”). Unfortunately most commentators talk as if the era had virtues, and men were merely tools of the era, to be used as the age saw fit. They talk as if the deeds that the men performed were to be expected from them because the times made the men, and called forth their virtues.

Such talk is incomplete at best, and misleading at worst. Too much of this talk is in the realm of archeology and nostalgia. Such talk implies that the period was once alive, and we fondly look back on it because we know somehow that grand things happened. But it is past and gone, and so are the men and women who lived in it. We now look at the era as we do an archeological site in a museum. We gaze upon in wonder, want to preserve it because it will continue to astonish us, but we don’t think it has an effect on our life.

But this is the wrong way to look at World War II and that hard time. We should, rather, look at the men who made the era. We should look at their character and their actions. These were men who didn’t expect much from life, were without resources, save only their wise heads and stout hearts. They thought themselves ordinary, and ended up being great. This view puts flesh and bone and sinew on the epoch, makes it real and living still.

Besides, many are still alive, thank God. You can actually talk to them and hear their stories. I bump into them all the time, people who lived through it all, and acted well through it all. Folks like George Valentine, Sanford Nash, Don Ramm, Marlowe Kipplinger, and George Krino seem larger than life because of what they lived through and what they did. There are still men around who rumbled in Patton’s tanks, and marched in MacArthur’s armies.

On this day, Earl Hawkins’ My Experiences in War and Business is published. It is the story of a poor West Virginia boy coming to Ohio to find work. He found work that kept him alive, but it wasn’t much. So he joined the National Guard in Ashland for a few extra bucks each month, plus a chance to spend some time on the rifle range. On October 15, 1940 President Roosevelt called the unit into Federal service for one year. Well, that service was extended for a considerable period longer, and Staff Sargeant Otis Earl Hawkins found himself in the Pacific fighting the Japanese.

He fought in the Battle of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands. He fought well, and was highly decorated. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Silver Star.

I am delighted that Mr. Hawkins has allowed the Ashbrook Center to publish his book. It is a fine story of an ordinary man with extraordinary character who rose to superhuman heights when the demand was upon him. The rest of his good life is in the book too, his marriage, his work, his many accomplishments in business. All this is told with grace and humor and dignity. But, best of all, the personal qualities that made all of it possible are always shinning through.

Reading the book is like having a conversation with a good old man who has seen much and accomplished much, and he knows something about why he was able to do it. And if the book isn’t enough, you could always go talk to him. He is your neighbor.

This isn’t archeology or nostalgia. I can now tell my children the true stories of hardship and courage and fortitude not for the sake of remembering a far distant past as if it were a museum piece, but for the sake of their own future lives and well being. They will learn why such men deserved victory. And they will learn why at their finest hour, when victory was theirs, they treated the vanquished with such magnanimity.

Men who have been so noble in their actions, and can tell their story well, are the real teachers of the young. They teach that you should expect nothing, work hard, do nothing that you will regret and, with some luck, you will live long and be happy.