Veterans and civilians of the World War II era have their individual memories of that war, but the common memory that cuts across all classes and kinds is the sense of national unity and purpose: "We're all in it together, and we're all going to see it through. "
No other event in our history touched so many Americans. More than 16 million men and women served in the armed forces, half of all men between the ages of 18 and 49. The war effort added 19 million to the workforce, 35 percent of them women, idealized as "Rosie the Riveter" for filling jobs previously considered too tough and demanding for women. Even children, pulling their little wagons, were enlisted in scrap-metal drives that fed the insatiable wartime demand of the steel mills.
And this was in a country whose population was barely 133 million when the war started. Youngsters whose previous travel consisted of Saturday visits to the county seat found themselves spread across the globe from the Southern Pacific to Northern Europe and all over the world's oceans.
The experience of the war was that Americans were part of something much larger than themselves and they returned to civilian life determined to stay a part of it.
Six World War II vets became U.S. presidents and others dominated Congress. Now only three remain: U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both of Hawaii.
As it did for so many, the war and the G.I. Bill broadened narrow pre-war horizons. Lautenberg, head of a $9 billion company before becoming a senator, would have been grateful for a job as a bus driver; Inouye, who has represented Hawaii in the Senate for more than 48 years, imagined he'd be a store clerk.
For many, the war enabled them to transcend their nation's failings. Inouye, like other Japanese-Americans, was stigmatized as an enemy alien. Many of their families were cruelly interned in camps, for which the U.S. government formally apologized.Inouye lost his right arm in combat with the Germans as a member of the heavily decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He and 19 other survivors of that unit were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Inouye spoke for many veterans in a recent interview when he said, "I left the war as an adult -- I was a teenager when I got in -- feeling rather proud of myself as an American, and to this day I look upon my country as a great country."
Should an ill fate demand it of us again, we must hope we are still the kind of nation that can summon that sense of purpose, unity and national resolve.