There was a time early in my writing career when finding war veterans from the last century’s world wars to interview during annual remembrance activities like D-Day wasn’t that hard a task.
There were always plenty of veterans around to share their fascinating stories of heroism and bravery (although few I talked to over the years saw it that way) while under enemy fire, and I never tired of hearing their versions of major events.
I have always been a history buff and studied the world wars thoroughly as a university student, so it was always with great interest that I sat with these most interesting people and heard them talk about their first-hand accounts of battles that I only read about in text books.
There were even veterans of the First World War available for interviews at the time but, unfortunately, the years go by and the last known veteran of that war anywhere in the world died in 2012.
The years are also taking their toll on the people who served in the Second World War, with less and less of them left all the time as well.
I expect the time will come soon enough when the last vet of the war of 1939-1945 will also be gone.
What a devastating loss of personal accounts of those years and what humanity went through that will be for posterity.
I’ve heard the old veterans say time and time again during those interviews over the years that they don’t consider themselves heroes; it was the ones who were left in their graves in Europe, Africa and Asia who were the real heroes and they were just survivors, they would say.
I’ve always found it hard to understand that the vets really felt that way after telling me incredible stories of charging straight into enemy fire, or jumping out of planes at night behind enemy lines while flak exploded around their aircraft.
I’ve often wondered if I would be as brave and selfless if I found myself in the same circumstances.
I just can’t see it.
If I was on one of those troop transports heading to the beach on D-Day and found the craft come under intense enemy machine gun fire from German bunkers, I expect and fear I would have jumped out the back of the boat and started to swim straight back to England.
Film I’ve seen of those young and green troops hitting the beaches and running straight into the melee without hesitation while men are being killed and wounded all around them says a lot about these people’s character.
In my interviews with them, they all admit they were scared half to death in these situations, but they kept going and fighting so as not to let their buddies and their unit down, and it had little to do with saving the world for democracy.
I would often get choked as they shared their stories of carrying wounded colleagues across battlefields while under fire, only to keep going after their friends died on their backs because they wanted to spare them the indignity of being left exposed to the elements and the rats.
Small wonder they call these guys the best generation.
It will be sad when they are all gone.
I just hope they taught us enough to try and avoid such cataclysms in the future.