There was a time when every schoolkid knew today was special because it was on “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1918 that World War I ended when Germany formally surrendered to the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiegne, France.
Do today’s kids know that? Is it still taught to them? Or do their teachers disregard philosopher George Santayana’s warning that those who fail to remember history are destined to repeat it?
More than 116,000 Americans perished in that “war to end all wars,” as it was called long before anyone imagined another 416,000 would perish in World War II, or 33,000 would die in Korea, and or another 58,000 would give their last full measure of devotion in Vietnam.
And those figures are nowhere near the staggering toll that has been paid and continues to be paid by America’s vigilant armed forces.
We do tend to forget, don’t we?
Today, however, is Veterans Day, a day set aside for parades and remembrances, and one of this column’s late friends always comes to mind.
Walpole’s Wally Songin, a local legend who played highly competitive hockey well into his 60s, didn’t get to play in his senior season because he had already turned 18 and World War II was raging.
The same day the Rebels boarded a bus to open their season at Boston Arena, Wally boarded a train at South Station bound for Fort Devens.
Six weeks later he was firing cannons along the Rhine River with the Army’s 78th Infantry Division in the bloody Battle of the Bulge.
“We were so young, so full of gumption,” he recalled. “But we were getting clobbered until they brought in (Gen. George) Patton. He’s the one who really knocked the hell out of the Germans.”
Those were days that would define his life.
He was 72 when he led a successful drive to place a beautiful monument in the center of town, naming Walpole servicemen who never made it home.
“What I did doesn’t compare to what they did,” he insisted. “They sacrificed their lives, making it possible for soldiers like me to pick up where we left off, getting married, having kids, enjoying holiday weekends.”
Even later in his life he made it to Washington to finally view the World War II memorial. Wearing his distinctive 78th Infantry Division cap he stood alone in reverie, gazing at marble panels that bore the names of battle sites he knew so well: Hurtgen Forest, Remagen Bridge.
“Excuse me, sir,” a young stranger said. “Were you there?”
“Yes, I was.”
Pointing to a nearby group of teens, the stranger explained, “I’m a teacher and those are my students. We’re from Delaware. Would you mind talking with them about it?”
Wally gladly did, and when it was time to go the teacher began to thank him.
“No,” he said, emotionally. “Sir, I thank you! It’s so damn wonderful to see someone teaching our history to our kids.”
It’s still wonderful.
Happy Veterans Day.
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