Letter from Military History – June/July 2009

Last of the Greatest

June 6 of this year marks the 65th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, when the combined forces of the oft-dubbed “Greatest Generation” hit the skies and beaches of northern France in a unified mission to rid a captive Europe of the scourge of Nazi Germany. This year also marks a historic watershed for that generation and for military history: Participants of the invasion who were just 20 years old (average age of U.S. soldiers was about 26) on that turbulent June dawn will turn 85, and many are in failing health. An entire generation is passing, and with them the eyewitness remembrances of their own personal wars.

Their stories will soon pass forever from the immediacy of the spoken word to the far drier medium of printed words—to the pages of history. The time is fast approaching when no reporter, no historian will be able to sit face to face with a veteran of Utah Beach or Saint-Mère-Église and record what that man saw and heard and smelled—and felt—in those unforgettable dark hours that swung the fate of Europe. For now, we can still ask about the invasion and other battles and actions, and they can summon their impressions of what really happened to them and those beside them. But future historians will lose the advantage of historians like Cornelius Ryan, who interviewed hundreds of participants in the years just after the war.

With direct interviews and oral histories there are, of course, issues of perspective and foggy memories and plain factual errors. Such accounts can always be crosschecked and verified with other sources, official and unofficial. But the immediacy of eyewitness accounts is one vivid element of the history of World War II that will soon be beyond our reach.

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