During World War II, millions of Americans banded together in a united front of patriotism that crossed cultural boundaries, economic strata, and community structure. Paralleling this era on the home front, our nation is once again in the throes of a new type of battle that calls upon reserves of strength and taps emotional resources at every turn. Together, we fight a global war for life and health, as our doctors, nurses, first responders, health aides, pharmacists, caregivers, law enforcement officers, and many, many others soldier on to sustain and save lives and flatten the curve of the spread of a global pandemic. Behind these crusaders lies an unofficial army of volunteer supporters whose efforts should be lauded.
Like today’s support volunteers, veterans share similar stories. According to Rona Simmons, author of The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines, “Non front-line workers’ stories were presumed to be uninteresting and unworthy,” she says. But meticulous research and personal interviews with WWII veterans and their family members revealed a unified truth that wars like WWII and the global health crisis bring out the best in humanity. “If asked, these veterans would say they ‘just did their job.’” Simmons explains, “They believed they had nothing to tell, yet I found out differently. Their tales are as remarkable as those on the battlefield.”
During WWII, the millions of men and women behind the scenes were driven by the same urgency to help but got little public credit for keeping the frontline fighters prepared to do their jobs. “They were patriots and believed they had done their small part in the war effort,” Simmons says of the 19 veterans whose stories appear in the book.
Today, like the noncombat veterans in Simmons’ book, we each serve our country in some way.
Parents juggle working from home while supervising their children’s schooling. American neighborhoods rally together to sew face masks for health care workers and patients. Animal lovers feed pets whose owners no longer can. Shoppers fill and deliver grocery orders for at-risk individuals. Volunteers at food banks manage supply and donation logistics for community members. Trucking companies repurpose fleets to deliver necessary goods to those in need. Factories repurpose manufacturing lines to produce critical medical equipment. Distilleries now create hand sanitizer. An endless amount of sacrifice and hope may indeed level the playing field of the relentless coronavirus. Much like in the war years, this unified national effort is massive, and at its heart, driven by human kindness and shared empathy.
Now, as we all do what we can to supply our “troops,” our frontline workers and most fragile citizens, we feel the impact of high consumer demand and supply shortages. As rationing became a reality in the 1940s, living and doing with less was an accepted way of life. “From just after the war started until 1946, the United States government limited access to food, gas, and clothing to divert resources and production capacity to wartime needs,” says Simmons. “Every household – the wealthy and the less fortunate – received a book of coupons for the restricted items.” Lieutenant Eleanor Millican Frye served the United States Naval Women’s Reserve. She recalled of that era, “No one complained, that was just the way it was.” Perhaps most profound was her observation, “We believed we were doing the right thing and helping the troops get what they needed.”
To enable the health care system, another veteran in the book, United States Army Captain Randall A. Bostwick helped open Dewitt General Hospital to treat war casualties. After a crash course in emergency medical treatment, Bostwick’s career shifted to medical supply and materials management. In looking back on his tireless service in various support roles for both World War II and the Korean War, he said, “It was a privilege to be involved. I saw civilization at its low ebb and human nature at its highest.”
In the 1940s and during military engagements since, service flags for active-duty and fallen soldiers adorned windows. Americans now recognize the diligence of our frontline workers in different ways. Suburban beribboned mailboxes, urban nightly musical celebrations, and joyously noisy car parades all over America honor the selflessness of those fighting to save lives. As the nation endures the shared experience of ongoing quarantine, economic shutdown, and the element of not knowing what will happen next with coronavirus or COVID-19, these unsung heroes and heroines of World War II in Simmons’ book serve as wonderful examples of why every person matters in the fight.
“The veterans from WWII as the health care workers of today also both serve as witnesses to a ‘low ebb’ of civilization, like the late Holocaust liberator William A. Scott III, Reconnaissance Sergeant for the US Army, observed.” Scott bore witness to a similar wave of global change as battles left untold scars and emotional remnants on the world. In poignantly observing his war experience, Scott’s words could easily describe what people may one day say about living through this era of a global pandemic. “Some moments cannot be forgotten or dimmed by the passage of time.”
Indeed, Simmons concludes, “We must learn from the past and the people who bore witness to history. Their deeds, their sacrifices, and their hopes live on in us and help us in difficult times, like today and tomorrow.”