Everyone is taught in school about how America is the greatest country on Earth due to the rights and freedoms its people enjoy, and we’ve seen this in action over the past four months with the presidential election and its aftermath of protests, etc.
In other words, it’s just another reminder that such liberties are alive and well today thanks to the brave military personnel who have fought to preserve democracy.
While many soldiers of yesteryear died in battle, others have gone on to live long and productive lives. They’ve willingly shared their unique experiences and allowed those of us who weren’t there to gain a better understanding of conflicts such as World War II — arguably the defining event of the 20th century.
Sadly, our community lost a fine example of this in recent days with the passing of William F. “Bud” Liebenow, 97, who had a distinguished career as a naval officer in both the Pacific and European theaters. This included rescuing future President John F. Kennedy after his PT-109 crisis and helping to prepare for the D-Day invasion through a clandestine mission — then leading a rescue of its casualties.
Mr. Liebenow lived in our community late in life after moving here from Edenton, and he departed this world leaving it a better place because of his efforts.
Before Mr. Liebenow’s death, we lost other heroic figures from World War II.
They included U.S. Army veteran Jack Leach, this area’s last-surviving serviceman of the Pearl Harbor attack, who died in 2016, and before him Thurmond Midkiff in 2015.
Mr. Midkiff was a member of the Army’s Rattlesnake Squad in Italy, a special unit operating within the infantry. However, he also was known for his peacetime service that included leading Honor Guard rites at more than 1,000 military funerals.
The long gray line earlier had been thinned with the passing in 2013 of Worth Haynes, a veteran of the Italian Campaign who served in the Army’s Polar Bear regiment.
Then there was Norman Webb (2011), who was among the first troops to hit the beaches on D-Day, helped stop the German advance at the Battle of the Bulge and was actively involved in the liberation of Paris and Berlin.
Those wonderful gentlemen come readily to mind because I was lucky enough to have interviewed each of them and help record their historic memories for posterity.
While they were high-profile local veterans, there are countless others whose exploits didn’t make the newspaper pages but whose blood ran red just the same. They might have died during the war before their stories could be told, or been among the hundreds of thousands more who lived for many decades afterward and quietly faded away without fanfare.
The ranks of surviving vets of the Second World War are diminishing at the rate of around 500 per day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. At last report, only about 855,070 remained from the 16 million who served this country during the conflict.
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect that these great patriots will live from now on, but there is a bright side to the situation.
It involves employing technology to provide the next-best thing to living forever, ensuring that the experiences of our veterans won’t be lost to the sands of time.
I recently learned of a joint operation in the Martinsville, Virginia, area between local government, historical groups and a museum. They announced an effort to preserve such memories through a new film project that will allow veterans’ oral histories to be preserved.
Organizers’ aim is to produce videos of interviews with every World War II veteran they can find, in addition to an overall video to summarize their experiences.
The beauty of such a project is that it will allow veterans to share their memories and have those recorded for posterity while they are still here and able to participate.
There is no reason why this effort can’t be duplicated in our own history-minded area.
While the U.S. has engaged in numerous conflicts during its existence, beginning with the French and Indian War, there was none where the global stakes were higher than World War II.
I can’t imagine how life would be today under the rule of Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan and Fascist Italy.
But thanks to the enduring efforts of America’s service personnel, modern-day citizens don’t have to protest those regimes — which likely would fast-track them to the grave — and are instead free to gripe about Donald Trump.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.