Itís hard to comprehend that when I was a kid, World War II was a memory as recent as the first Gulf War is today, and World War I veterans were about the age Vietnam veterans are today. It wasnít too long ago that the last living World War I soldier died and, last week, stories ran about the 70th anniversary of Germanyís surrender in World War II.

Itís kind of hard to picture Europeans at each otherís throats today. The Russians and the Balkan countries, OK, maybe. But trying to picture the British, French and Germans in a fight to the death is about like trying to picture Columbia and Princeton playing in the College Football Playoff final.

Seventy years ago, it was quite real. And the number of men still around who witnessed historyís greatest conflict grows fewer every day.

Every once in a while, a generation, like mine, comes along that doesnít know war. We matured in those years between Vietnam and the Gulf War and werenít sure our country would ever fight again. We certainly didnít envision the kind of perpetual war that has lingered since 2001.

But we were raised by a generation that had just the opposite experience. They fought historyís biggest war, and it took a whole generation to do it. Of course, you wouldnít have known it by talking to them.

Growing up, youíd have thought we beat the Germans and Japanese by throwing Underwood typewriters at them or smothering them with triplicate forms. Every World War II veteran I knew, including my father, was in a support unit. They were mostly mild-mannered men, and their war stories were about buggy barracks, lousy food, bureaucratic wastefulness and wanting to go home.

Baby Boomers cracked jokes about them. Archie Bunkerís rear area military service during World War II was a constant punch line on ďAll in the Family.Ē Itís hard to believe we were ever that disrespectful.

One of my friendís fathers had been in combat. He had a Purple Heart and the shell fragment that had come out of his body to prove it. My friend opened up his fatherís keepsake box and showed it to me, along with a kidney stone his father had passed.

My friendís father summed it up by saying that he had done very little. He had gotten into the fight right at the end of the war. He said it sharply and abruptly, so as to end the discussion. I never got to hear the story about how the shell fragment wound up in him.

I dismissed it pretty much the same way my friendís father had. After all, if he said it was no big deal, it was no big deal. It wasnít until much later that I realized that it had been a much bigger deal than he had let on.

Even if it was almost over when he went into combat, he had no idea how long it would last. It didnít make getting shelled or mortared any less frightening. It didnít make the wound any less painful.

My familyís adopted grandmother, Mrs. McCown, lost a son in the war. A crew member on a B-24 Liberator, he was shot down on a mission to bomb the Romanian oil fields. His body wasnít recovered until the 1960s, when the plane was discovered in some remote location. My mother talked about how it had been like losing him all over again for Mrs. McCown. We never talked about it with her because of the pain.

I never heard a World War II veteran actually talk about combat in person until I was grown. He was sitting in an apartment complex laundromat while his clothes dried. When I found out he was a veteran, I asked him about his experience.

The way he told me about it was as if nobody had bothered to ask before and nobody cared. He had been in Gen. George S. Pattonís army and fought in the relief of Bastogne in Belgium. It was so cold that his M-1 rifle wouldnít cycle the ammunition.
He had to work the action after every shot, ejecting the spent casing and throwing in a fresh cartridge by hand. He joked that it was an M-1 because it only fired one bullet at a time, not like the fully automatic M-16s issued to contemporary soldiers. He laughed at his own joke.

As the years went by, I found that the old soldiers got more talkative, and their stories got more detailed and in some cases, more graphic. I had been surrounded by combat veterans all along. Itís just that they were silent.

I donít know why they shed their reluctance to talk. Maybe they figured they were running out of time to tell their stories. Maybe they figured we could learn something from them.

Itís a good thing that they did. I guess unit histories and documentaries would have preserved their deeds. But thereís something about looking into the same eyes that stared across the line at their adversaries and just talking. Itís different from reading about it in a book or seeing it on television.

The opportunity to do that is fading.

Robert DeWitt is senior writer for The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News. Readers can email him at robert.dewitt@tuscaloosanews.com.