Tests of Greatness

What I'm thankful for, when you're thankful for my service.

November/December 2012

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Tests of Greatness

Image: Chris Koehler

A certain cachet has been fixed on all 16 million Americans who participated in the second world war. Strangers judge my age and mumble the mantra "Thank you for your service." Last December 7, spam appeared in my email from an organization promoting patriotism with a reminder: It was not only Pearl Harbor Day, but also Kiss a Veteran of WW II Day. "Hey, he's one of the 'Greatest Generation.' " I dared not venture out for fear of being slobbered on.

But before I, like other old soldiers, fade away, I'd like to clarify the record. We were not, one and all, the greatest generation. Greatness is a function of whether or not one is made of the right stuff and whether or not one is put in a position by someone further up the chain of command to have that stuff tested. Some were great. More were near great. Some, not so great. Most, normal.

For most of us, there were two wars. One was the war in the headlines of the day and the history books after: the Main Event. The other was our personal war: where we were, what we were doing or what was being done to us. Sometimes we were part of the Main Event. Often we weren't.

During the Battle on Pelelieu, where 1,252 Marines were killed, I was on a weekend pass from Fort Snelling, sipping cocktails at the Pied Piper Lounge in Minneapolis with a blonde from Red Wing, Minn.

When my classmate Bob Low was a gunnery officer on a destroyer fending off kamikaze pilots in the Battle for Okinawa, I was in New Delhi on detached duty with British Intelligence—on the staff of Lord Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas George Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet, Governor of the Raj, First Sea Lord, decorated with the Order of the Garter, Order of the Bath, Order of Merit, Order of the Star of India, Order of the Indian Empire, Royal Victorian Order and Distinguished Service Order. (Also Queen Victoria's great-grandson.) My commanding colonel insisted that so long as I was on duty with them I be costumed as one of them—a British lef-tenant with flared shorts and high sox that allowed my knees to be tanned just ever so. I did risk sunstroke if I ventured into the noonday sun without my pith helmet.

Months later, though, on August 1, 1945, in Kunming in southwest China, there would come finally an opportunity to assay my greatness. A major asked, "How would you like to volunteer for a mission, Lieutenant?"

"Do I have a choice, sir?" I asked.

"No," the major said.

"I volunteer," I said.

It was for intelligence reconnaissance—to be flown and dropped off behind Japanese lines. But it was a mission that did not have to be accomplished after August 15, when the Emperor broadcast (in archaic court language that few of his "Good and Loyal Subjects" understood) that his Imperial Forces were ordered to surrender. "The war situation has developed," announced the Emperor, "not necessarily to Japan's advantage."

The major rescinded my mission and asked me to volunteer for another: to check a jeep out of the motor pool and drive across town to Joe's Shangri-La Winery to pick up a case of vodka to celebrate V-J Day.

With that service record, I was awarded two rows of decorations—a respectable number, even if not the display descending from clavicle to belly button on the chests of generals when they testify before the Senate Armed Forces Committee.  I have the Good Conduct Medal (for being a good boy and not getting VD); the American Campaign Medal (for being in the Zone of the Interior before shipping out); the Victory Medal (for being in uniform on V-J Day); the Asiatic-Pacific Medal (for a pleasant cruise crossing the Pacific to Asia); a Bronze Star device for the China Offensive (for being in China); the Japanese Occupation Medal (for being in Japan); the Memorial Medal from the Republic of China (for being in China before the Republic was exiled to Taiwan), and the Presidential Unit Citation (for what others in my unit, not I, did).

I cannot look at films of the landings on the beaches of Normandy on D-day without wincing—with a feeling of guilt for not having been there, doing my part along with Tom Hanks saving Private Ryan. But, to be honest, I'm more thankful for not having been there and now being extant—unlike 26 others of the Class of '41 whose names are on the Memorial Auditorium honor roll of war dead.

Al Zelver, '41, MA '49, lives in Bozeman, Mont.

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