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May 29, 2000
Rev. Paul R. Meltzer, Pastor
Millburn Congregational United Church of Christ

This coming November, ground-breaking ceremonies on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., will begin construction of a National World War II Memorial. The Memorial will commemorate the over sixteen million men and women of the armed services in that War, the over one million casualties and the 405,399 men and women of this country who gave their lives in that world conflict.

The numbers alone suggest the impact of that war on our times. For many of us of a certain age, to speak of "the War" can mean only one war - World War II. I saw World War II through a child's eyes - listening to my grandfather ringing the church bell to warn of a "blackout" drill and lying in the darkness on our living room floor straining to hear airplanes, playing "spy" with older cousins, longing for the end of rationing so that there could be pie every day. And with war's end there would be no more news to report, I believed, and H. V. Kaltenborn would be banished from the radio waves forever!

There are many here today, however, who saw that war in all its intense particulars - veterans of the battle front and of the home front. You have your own memories, more vivid than mine of the War's realities - of frustrated waiting and sheer boredom, of mud and pain, of fear and exhilaration. The passage of years cannot diminish the intensity of those memories, but the years do diminish the numbers. Those young men and women, some still teenagers at war's beginning, are today in their 70's and 80's. Many already rest in cemeteries like this, and for younger generations "the War" consists of grainy newsreels, fading photographs, packets of tattered letters and fragments of stories that recall some jagged piece of that long-ago war.

So, perhaps it is time to build a memorial lest future generations forget entirely how that particular war and its consequences shaped a generation and influenced history. It is, however, not first or only or even the most important memorial to those sixteen million men and women who served their country and the over 400,000 who gave their lives. The greater memorial is our gathering here today to celebrate their valor and the liberty they helped preserve. The lasting memorial to them is our world itself which, however often imperfectly, still persists to challenge tyranny and to cherish the dignity and freedom of every human being. We celebrate and honor today that generation, and through them, all for whom this day is dedicated.

Barely a decade after World War II's end, a particular veteran of that War, Donald Baker, touched my life. He was a professor at my undergraduate college. One might never have guessed that this slightly tweedy literature teacher had been a bombardier ten years before. Like many he had slipped back into the anonymity of ordinary lives. Yet he brought a passion for Shakespeare and an intensity as he put it, to make words say what we intend with grace and clarity, that was born from facing war's test of character.

Donald Baker is also a poet, and from a volume of poems, "Unposted Letters," he recalls that time in all its dimensions of greatness and banality, of valor and waste that is that "thing" war. The poem is titled "John Smith 1923 - 1944," and let "John Smith," that ubiquitous "everyman," represent all that generation:

John Smith 1923 - 1944

My friend, John Smith, a usual man,
Urging his bomber from the earth,
Heard his life end in a big bang
And took tire with his last breath.

Our engines idled through the necessary pause,
Until his passion was extinguished.
Then the others of the squadron rose
Into the morning, over John Smith's ashes

Bombed, and at noon returned, most of them,
To the hut where, with one drooping eye,
The colonel drew the obvious lesson:
How not to fly.

No day could have been more ordinary.
So much was burning in that bad time
That no one troubled to sing an elegy
For John Smith and his crew of nine.

That was almost 40 years ago.
Now in the evening on our TV
The shining bombers climb and show
Us how it was, is, and again will be,

While here, where only a desk-lamp burns,
I rake old anguish to make my truth
And record at last some ordinary rhymes,
A late song for a long-dead youth.

My friend, John Smith, who, in the Second War,
Blew up and burned, one among many,
A clownish hero, killed by error,
As smart as most, as brave as any.
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