World War II vets come to be honored

WASHINGTON – Corpsman 2nd Class Stephen Cluskey Cromwell, a 20-year-old pharmacist’s mate, was a medic on the main deck of the battleship Missouri. It was about 2 p.m. on April 11, 1945, in the early days of the battle of Okinawa, when a Japanese kamikaze plane smashed into the deck above him and the upper half of the pilot’s body landed 30 feet from Cromwell’s post.

Unnerved, the corpsman turned to the captain and asked what to do about the body. Preserve it, he was told, for a Christian burial at sea, with taps. Even in the frenzy of a battle that would claim 12,000 American and 100,000 Japanese lives, the young sailor came to understand, the dignity of human life should be preserved.

Now, nearly 60 years later, Dr. Stephen Cromwell of Rockville, Md., is one of 800,000 people expected in Washington on Saturday for the dedication of the long-awaited National World War II Memorial. They are surrogates for the 16 million Americans who served in the war, the 400,000 who died, and the millions of civilians who worked in factories, served as air-raid wardens and grew victory gardens at home.

They will come to collect the public thanks of a nation they fundamentally refashioned – the last hurrah for a generation that defeated tyranny and then created a superpower.

They are also coming to deposit their stories of war and sacrifice, to explain their war to a country in which most citizens have no memory of it, and little understanding of why it stands apart – in the scale of the suffering, and the example of what unparalleled unity could produce.

“This was the most seminal event of the 20th century,” said Martha Putney, a retired historian who was one of the first black women commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army. “It changed a lot of things.”

As they record their stories, the details remain remarkably sharp, though most veterans are in their 70s and 80s now, many with hearing aids or canes.

For Dorothy Davis, a nurse from Rockville who tended the wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, it was the “terrible cold snow” and the sawhorses that turned stretchers into operating tables.

For Arthur Rittenburg, of Piermont, N.Y., it was the primitive radio equipment at Iwo Jima, and the Navajo Code Talkers who transmitted messages in a language the enemy could not decipher.

Such memories will be on raw display this weekend as Washington readies for a four-day Memorial Day weekend “Tribute to a Generation.”

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