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The Legacy of the World War II Generation
Remarks by President Bill Clinton , the Victory-in-Europe 50th anniversary commemoration, Fort Myer, Va., Monday, May 08, 1995

Thank you. ... Fifty years ago on this day the guns of war in Europe fell silent. A long shadow that had been cast on the entire continent was lifted. Freedom's warriors rejoiced. We come today, 50 years later, to recall their triumph, to remember their sacrifice and to rededicate ourselves to the ideals for which they fought and for which so many of them died.

By Victory Day in Europe, from the beaches of Normandy to the gates of Moscow some 40 million people lost their lives in World War II. These enormous but faceless numbers hid millions upon millions of personal tragedies -- soldiers shot and shattered by weapons of war, prisoners cut down by disease and starvation, children buried in the rubble of bombed-out buildings and entire families exterminated solely because of the blood that ran in their veins.

And for every death so many more fell wounded physically and emotionally. They would survive, but their lives would be changed forever. At war's end an 8-year-old boy, already a veteran of air raids and bomb shelters, was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He answered with one word: "Alive."

The American people, secure on our continent, sobered by memories of the last war, were not eager to enter into the struggle, but they were stirred by the extraordinary courage of the British, all alone and carrying liberty's flickering torch into Europe's darkening night. Pushed by their passion for freedom, prodded by the wise leadership of President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt and provoked finally by the infamy at Pearl Harbor, Americans went to war.

It became an all-consuming effort. Millions were heroes here on the home front. They built the planes, the ships, the tanks, the trucks that carried the allied armies into battle. They bought Victory Bonds to pay for the war. They collected scrap metal for weapons, worn-out rubber for tires, leftover fat for explosives, and they planted 20 million victory gardens to help feed the nation.

With good cheer they sacrificed, rationing food and clothing, holding themselves to three gallons of gas a week, and President Roosevelt willed them onward. "There is one front and one battle", he said, "where everyone in the United States -- every man, woman and child -- is in action. That front is right here at home."

Across the ocean, their fathers and brothers, sisters and mothers, friends and neighbors gave the best years of their lives to the terrible business of war. Some of them were among the greatest leaders our country and the world have every known: [Army Gens. Dwight D.] Eisenhower, [George] Marshall, [Omar] Bradley, [George] Patton. But no matter their rank, every soldier, airman, Marine, sailor, every merchant marine, every nurse, every doctor was a hero who carried the banner of justice into the battle for freedom.

Some of them are here with us today. The gentleman who introduced me, Frederick McIntosh, was then an Air Force lieutenant. He flew, as has been said, 104 missions. His daring dive-bomb raids on D-Day helped clear the way for the Allied landing.

Another veteran behind me, Robert Katayama, a private with the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team that finally broke through the formidable Gothic Line in Italy after five months of ferocious assault.

Another, Anna Connelly Wilson, a nurse who tended American soldiers moving gasoline and munitions across the deserts of Iran into the hands of our Russian allies.

Another, Abben MaGuire, a Navy demolition expert who landed on Omaha Beach ahead of the Allied assault, clearing mines, barbed wire and booby traps under heavy fire from the enemy.

Another, George Ellers, a seaman on Coast Guard boats charged with protecting the merchant marine armadas that ferried food and supplies from America to Europe and beyond.

Joseph Kahoe, a lieutenant with the all-African-American 761st Tank Battalion who braved the deadening cold of the Ardennes and the brutal Nazi counterattacks to help win the Battle of the Bulge.

And Father Francis Sampson, an Army chaplain who parachuted into Normandy, then into Holland, was wounded, captured but managed to escape.

In their bravery and that of all their brothers and sisters in arms America found the will to defeat the forces of fascism. And today we, the sons and daughters of their sacrifice, say thank you and well done.

I ask all the veterans of World War II now to stand and be recognized.

During the war's final weeks, America's fighting forces thundered across Europe, liberating small villages and great cities from a long nightmare. Many witnessed an outpouring of love and gratitude they would remember for the rest of their lives.

Deep in the Bavarian countryside, Cpl. Bill Ellington piloted his armored vehicle into a battle against retreating enemy troops. As a fire fight raged a rail-thin teen-age boy ran shouting toward the tank. He was a young Polish Jew, Samuel Pisar, who had survived four years at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, but along the way had lost his entire family. Samuel Pisar had seen the tank and its glorious five-pointed white star from his hideaway in a barn.

As Ellington looked down at him the boy dropped to his knees and repeated over and over the few words of English his mother had taught him: "God bless America. God bless America." And Ellington, the son of a slave, lifted the boy through the hatch and into the warm embrace of freedom.

Bill Ellington died a few years ago, but Samuel Pisar, now an American citizen, is here with us today. And I'd like to ask him to stand as a reminder of what that war was all about.

The saga of hope emerged from the ashes of a horror that defies comprehension still -- the Nazi death camps. In the gas chambers and crematoriums was proof of man's infinite capacity for evil. In the empty eyes of the skeletal survivors was a question that to this day has never been answered: How could this happen?

But at 2:40 a.m. on May 7th, in a small red-brick schoolhouse in France, the Germans signed their unconditional surrender. The armistice took effect the next day -- this day, 50 years ago.

News of the victory spread and grew from a ripple of excitement to a river of joy. The liberated capitals of Western Europe were awash in relief and jubilation. The boulevards burst with flag-waving, teary-eyed, thanks-giving celebrants. Everywhere people tore down their blackout curtains and let the light of peace shine out.

In the sky over Moscow gigantic white rays of light from huge projectors slashed the darkness of night, and a 1,000-gun salute shook the city. There, too, millions teemed into the street. But their joy was dulled by the pain of their nation's unique sacrifice, for one out of every eight Soviet citizens was killed in World War II -- 27 million people. At almost every table in every home there was an empty place.

In London, where a brave and defiant people had stood alone through the war's darkest hours, great bonfires ringed the city, and on the balcony of Buckingham Palace Prime Minister [Winston] Churchill stilled the delirious crowd with his own silence. Then he took one deep all-embracing bow, and the crowd exploded into a roar of triumph. "This is your victory," Churchill declared. And the people of the United Kingdom answered back as one, "No, it is yours." Of course, both were right.

Here at home the Washington Monument, the Capitol Dome, the Statue of Liberty were bathed in floodlights for the very first time since Pearl Harbor. New York was New Year's Day and the Fourth of July rolled into one. Millions cheered, shouted, sang, danced in the streets. And in an image that traveled all around the world, a sailor took a nurse in his arms and kissed her with all the pent-up, youthful enthusiasm of a people forgetting for an instant the new burdens of adulthood.

Less than a month in office, President [Harry] Truman addressed the nation and said, "This is a solemn but glorious hour. I only wish FDR [Roosevelt] had lived to witness this day." Millions of Americans shared that conviction, for in their darkest hour, President Roosevelt refused to let us give up in despair. He rallied the Americans to defeat depression and triumph in war. And so it was his victory, too.

It was America's victory, but the job for us was not yet complete. In the Pacific, war raged on. During the three months between V-E and V-J [Victory over Japan] Day many thousands more of our fighting men and women would lose their lives. After Japan surrendered, who could have blamed the American people for wanting to turn from the front lines abroad to the home front? But after winning the most difficult and crucial victory in our nation's history, our leaders were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Instead, they took to new challenges with a new-found confidence, and this remarkable generation of Americans, then through NATO, the United Nations and the Marshall Plan, created the institutions and provided the resources and the vision that brought half a century of security and prosperity to the West and brought our former enemies back to life and to true partnership with us.

And their special resolve and military strength held totalitarianism in check until the power of democracy, the failure of communism and the heroic determination of people to be free prevailed in the Cold War.

Today we must draw inspiration from the extraordinary generation we come here to honor. A generation that won the war and then made sure we would not lose the peace. A generation that understood our destiny is inexorably linked to that of other nations. A generation that believed that with our great wealth, great power and great blessings of democratic freedom come great responsibilities to stand for and work for the common good.

So let me say again to the generation that won the Second World War, on this 50th anniversary, on behalf of the American people, we say thank you. Thank you and God bless you.

Because of all you did, we live in a moment of hope, in a nation at peace. For the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, no Russian missiles are pointed at our children. Our economy is sound. And because free markets and democracy now are on the march throughout the world, more people than ever before have the opportunity to reach their God-given potential, all because of what you did 50 years ago.

But there is one thing that even you could not do, that no generation can ever do. You could not banish the forces of darkness from the future. We confront them now in different forms all around the world and, painfully, here at home. But you taught us the most important lesson -- that we can prevail over the forces of darkness, that we must prevail. That is what we owe to you and the incomparable legacy you have given us, and what we all owe to the generations of remarkable Americans yet to come.

Thank you for teaching us that lesson. God bless you, and God bless America.

 

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