On Memorial Day, this year as usual, I found myself thinking about, and praying for, the courageous, self-sacrificing men and women who offered life and/or health to safeguard our basic freedoms, enshrined within the United States’ Declaration of Independence and Constitution. These freedoms, conferred upon each and every person by God and Creator, cannot be tampered with, manipulated, distorted, minimized or nullified by any human force, not even the State. Nor can they be invalidated by any sociological attitude or theory. Moreover, freedom of religion is the anchor of all other God-given freedoms, from freedom of speech to freedom of assembly.
Unfortunately, there are those who, within or outside of government, or within or outside of academia, continually question, undermine or try to abrogate them. Even now, in America, whose Constitution is so strongly fortressed against efforts to weaken or destroy our fundamental, God-given rights, attempts are being made to consign these “unalienable rights” to the refuse heaps of history.
With the advantages that only a sufficiency of years can ensure, I can recall how seriously America faced the Nazi and Japanese threats to our existence in World War II. Because I had not yet turned 18, I was able to graduate from public high school when the draft was reaching down to 18-year-old friends and neighbors. We all had to grow up quickly then; 19-year-olds were entering combat in the South Pacific as well as Europe. There was no time to be wasted. I recall graduating in three years, simply by taking extra courses (Latin III and Latin IV in the same year; English III and English IV, also at once) and by carrying advanced courses in summertime sessions (e.g., geometry, chemistry).
However, the War was over in Europe just before my graduation day; as one of the commencement speakers I dwelt upon the prospect of a postwar world.
During the War, almost everyone worked two jobs or more. My good father, a superb teacher of mathematics and/or the classics (history, Latin), worked the second shift in a munitions factory; other older men drove buses or clerked in retail. Rationing was the rule: meat and groceries were rationed; leather shoes, also; sugar and butter, likewise; even gasoline and kerosene (for ranges). I still have some ration coupons in my files. Tires were difficult to acquire (until synthetics were marketable). One had to be on a long list for a new car; long after the War, automobiles were being sold without heaters or radios.
We all prayed for the G.I.’s then. As president of my homeroom, I led the class daily in prayers for soldiers and sailors everywhere; as assembly leader for two years, I led the entire student body in prayer also. When but a high school sophomore, I joined an adult speakers’ group to sell War Bonds on radio “spots” and also between feature films at cinemas.
Whenever a ship carrying kerosene (which many homes used then in kitchen combination ranges, along with gas) docked, I would carry two large glass drums onto the bus, queue up at the Bridgeport harbor, then take the bus back, with two filled kerosene drums, to our home in the Beardsley Park area. There was no other way, since my father worked two jobs and we didn’t own a car. A notice about kerosene’s availability would appear in the Bridgeport newspaper; a long line of people at the dock would be the rule.
We became used to such inconveniences. Real suffering occurred elsewhere. A first cousin whom I looked up to as a mentor (about three years my senior) was posted to England on a B-17, where he completed twice the usual missions over Fortress Europa. At the time the attrition rate neared 25 per cent. With God’s grace, he survived, becoming a police officer in Queens, N.Y., in the footsteps of his father. Before Pearl Harbor, a neighbor, about three years older than I, joined the Army. He died on the infamous Bataan death march. A German Jewish youth, highly talented and intellectually keen, escaped prior to arrest, and was sponsored by a Jewish retailer for whom I worked selling shoes. Both his parents perished in the Shoah. Quite alone in the world, he used to dine at our home Sunday evenings.
On Memorial Day, I recalled these people and events. (I didn’t even mention my days as an Air Raid Warden.) And I think about the priests who were called up for service as Chaplains. Three priests of the Hartford diocese landed on D-Day and survived. One, Msgr. Joseph Lacy, a Chaplain with the Rangers, was with the men who scaled Pointe D’Hoc, where the Nazis reportedly concealed an enormous gun.
One of the most memorable recollections of World War II is the story of the priests in the Chaplains’ Corps. These were truly great men.
But, again, we were all closer than we realized then to the same firefights faced abroad. In high school, all male teenagers approaching age 18 were excused from the first two or three class periods on Monday mornings in order to report at the Bridgeport YMCA for lessons in pre-induction swimming. The final test was the ability to swim the length of the pool, fully clothed, while bearing the weight of a machine gun. I have kept my diploma.
The same lesson applies to our lives today. Teenagers especially must learn what every G.I. soon knew in the 1940s; namely, that there are no atheists in foxholes; and that guarding our freedom requires hard work and suffering.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.