For how much longer will we be able to thank World War II veterans in person? “The men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now mostly in their 90s,” notes the National World War II Museum. In 2000, nearly 6 million of the 16 million Americans who fought in the war were still alive. Today, only 855,070 are left. As surviving soldiers, airmen, and sailors grow frailer and harder of hearing, they have a new role to play. They are the last living link to the West’s defeat of Nazi evil seven decades ago, and an inspiration in the long war against the evil of violent Islamist extremism.
Last Friday night, 24 American veterans of the World War II’s most brutal European battles came to Lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport to receive an honor not from their own government, but from the French government. The Legion of Honor, created by Napoleon in 1802, is “France’s highest award,” said French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at the outdoor ceremony.
Anyone who has been to Normandy knows that France considers it a sacred duty to honor the American liberators—a duty pointed up by Le Drian’s presence in New York as well as by his words. “Some of you were only 24,” he said, when “you crossed the ocean.” Landing at Normandy or Omaha Beach “with a fortitude that deserves respect . . . . [A]ll of you risked your lives in a land that was not yours for a country whose liberty was at stake.” Ségolène Royal, a top French cabinet minister and former presidential candidate, pinned red-ribboned medals on the veterans as their proud children and grandchildren looked on.
Though the war was global, each fighter had an individual experience. Austin Powlis, 90, landed at Normandy in June 1944, in the second wave of the invasion. An African-American from the Bronx, he served with the “Red Ball Express,” a massive truck convoy whose mostly black soldiers brought supplies to Allied fighters. Powlis remembers entering a Nazi death camp in Czechoslovakia just after Allied forces had liberated it. “We did a lot of de-lousing,” he said. After returning home, he served as a New York City police captain in the 40th precinct for 22 years.
Also present was 94-year-old Eugene Polinsky, an Air Corps flyer (and theater buff). A New Yorker whose parents were Russian Jews, Polinsky flew missions in black-painted planes for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) to support France’s resistance behind enemy lines. Ted Diamond, who turned 98 last Friday, flew 50 combat missions, leading a flight of B-17s as part of Operation Dragoon. “We were bombing the Germans,” he says, “showing” ground troops “they had aerial support” in the Allied invasion.
Though Friday’s ceremony was to honor past service, veterans still serve us— reminding the West of our shared task today. As Le Drian, the defense minister said, “France has a duty . . . from the World War. How can we stand by,” he said, “as al Qaeda and ISIS commit the same barbarism” that was once our shared enemy? As younger members of the French armed forces mingled with America’s older veterans for photos last Friday, it was hard not to remember that France has had a tough year. Islamist terrorists killed 17 in January at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and in related attacks, and a seeming lone-wolf terrorist beheaded another Frenchman in Lyon last week. Speaking of these “appalling attacks that hit European and other friendly countries,” Le Drian, five blocks away from the new World Trade Center, also remembered the attack “that hit the heart of your country, the very city of New York,” nearly 14 years ago. “Jihadism, terrorism, is not the only threat,” Le Drian added. Alluding to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea, he said that “the return of war on our continent” is “an unprecedented challenge since the end of the Cold War.” Le Drian made similar remarks Monday at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Ash Carter lauded France for its efforts to disrupt terrorism in North Africa.
It’s easy to feel demoralized after 14 years of fitful war against an enemy who is harder to define—and defeat—than the Nazis. But we can take comfort in the thought that the West has seen worse, and that it honors its soldiers, living and dead, across the generations.