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  • Robert M. Edsel

Honoring our Heroes, 75 Years Later, and Always

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the destruction of Nazism and the end of the war in Europe. During World War II, more than sixty million people died, a number so large that it challenges our capacity to appreciate the magnitude of loss. Consider the present impact and disruption to our world from the COVID-19 virus, which to date has claimed the lives of 275,000 people worldwide. Let that number – 275,000 – sit side-by-side for a moment with 60,000,000, then consider that in 1940, the world population was just one-third of what it is today.

Generals of the German High Command signing the formal surrender documents which ended the war in Europe on May 7, 1945. From left to right: Major General Wilhelm Oxenius, an aide to General Jodl; Colonel General Gustav Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German Army; and General Admiral Hans Georg Friedeburg, Commander in Chief of the German Navy.

There are many casualties from COVID-19 – in lives lost, jobs lost, and businesses that will not return to operation. The very nature of the disease has denied all reasonable and thoughtful people the ability to enjoy the physical comfort of friends and family, and a host of rituals that are essential to our lives, not the least of which is grieving. But on this particular day, we are experiencing another consequence of the virus: our inability to gather publicly to pay homage and say “thank you” once again to our dwindling population of World War II veterans and their spouses, whose sacrifices paid for the freedoms we enjoy today. Of course, that generation would be the last to complain. They didn’t seek laudatory praise after the war; they do not seek it now. Worth noting are General Eisenhower’s comments, and those of every single World War II veteran I have ever met, that the true heroes were the men and women buried on foreign battlefields, who never returned home.

President John Kennedy once duly noted, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but the men it honors, the men it remembers.” We must not allow the present challenges of COVID-19 to prevent us from pausing to give thanks for this truly remarkable generation of men and women to whom we owe so much.

If you’re like me, documents and images bring these great moments of history alive. I thought I would share with you a few from this momentous event that I owned years ago before donating them to the National World War II Museum. The first is a photograph of the the actual teletype General Eisenhower sent to his boss, General Marshall, Chief-of-Staff of the Army, informing him that the documents of surrender had been signed. (For those in my younger audience, a teletype was similar to a text message sent like a fax.) As one correspondent who witnessed this the formal signing ceremony later said, "They [the German High Command] formally surrendered the freedom they had already lost."

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