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Remembering VE Day

By Major General Perry Smith The Augusta Chronicle This week America, much of Europe, and members of the commonwealth of nations will quietly celebrate the 65th anniversary of VE Day. That was the day — May 5, 1945 — when the war in Europe was over. The war in Europe had lasted almost six years, and not even counting the war with Japan, this war had cost more than 50 million lives. As far as the disruption of humanity throughout all of world history, only the Black Death of the 14th century comes close. These men and women of the Allied nations fought for a noble cause, won the war and guided Germany, Japan and Italy away from fascism and totalitarianism toward democracy, free enterprise and the rule of law. In short, these patriots not only won the war but they won the peace — two accomplishments of great magnitude. More than 16 million serve this nation in uniform from 1941 to 1945. Today there are 2 million American veterans of World War II, all older than age 80, who still grace us with their presence. If you know World War II veterans, please thank them — we don’t have much time left to do so. Why did the Allies win, and what lessons can we draw from this war and its aftermath? IN THE SPRING of 1941, four totalitarian states were in a loose alliance that had the potential to destroy the democracies of the world. The Nazis had joined with the Soviets in 1939 to conquer Poland; Benito Mussolini had formed an alliance with Germany; and Japan soon became part of the Axis powers. Germany had conquered almost all of Western Europe, and Japan was on the march in Asia. When the Soviet Union and Japan signed a five-year nonaggression pact in April 1941, it was a very, very scary time for what was left of the free world. We sometimes forget that World War II was a very close thing. There were seven major reasons that the Allies won — intelligence, leadership, creativity, sea power, airpower, war production and logistics all played important roles in the victory. Unlike the Russians, who fought on one front, America fought a seven-front war: the war in Europe, in the Pacific and in China/Burma — but also the strategic air campaigns in Europe and in Asia; the battle of the North Atlantic (the British also played a big role) against highly effective German U-boats; and the submarine campaign in the Pacific, which sunk more than 90 percent of the Japanese merchant fleet. Russia, under the excellent leadership of Georgy Zhukov, tied up and later decimated more than 100 German divisions. The British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Poles and the Free French (as well as many other allies) all played important roles in ending the war in Europe. If I may add a personal note: My wife, Connor, and I were stuck in Rome for four days recently because of the Iceland volcano. We spent a full day visiting four places: - the Anzio/Nettuno battlefield; - the Cassino/Montecassino battlefield; - the Sicily/Rome cemetery at Nettuno, where more than 10,000 American warriors are honored (visiting this cemetery was a deeply moving experience); - an absolutely amazing museum on the road between Anzio and Cassino. Anyone interested in the battles of el-Alamein, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Cassino and Montecassino should visit the Piana Delle Orme museum near Pontinia. All of these locations are within an easy drive from Naples and Rome. For those with the time for some reading, here is a short list of some of the best books on World War II: - Why the Allies Won, by Richard Overy. It’s probably the best analytical history of the war. - A Short History of World War II, by James L. Stokesbury. His summary of the lessons of the war is brilliant. - Patton: A Genius for War, by Carlo D’Este . it’s an engrossing biography. - Blossoms in the Wind, by M.G. Sheftall. This is an amazing analysis of the kamikazes of World War II. It’s written by an American who has lived in Japan for many years, speaks fluent Japanese and who found a surprising number of kamikaze pilots who survived. - Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, by Gordon W. Prange and Donald M. Goldstein. This is the best book on the Japanese attack on Hawaii that changed the course of world history. - Medal of Honor, by Peter Collier. The vignettes on John Finn, Woody Williams, Walter Ehlers, Francis Currey are especially recommended. All fought in World War II. We are blessed since they are still in reasonably good health. Finn, who earned his Medal of Honor on Pearl Harbor Day, will celebrate his 101st birthday in July. (The writer, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, is the secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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