On Veteran's Day: In Search Of "The Greatest Generation"
AOL Autos Editor David Kiley journeys to Germany and Belgium to find a lost uncle killed in battle 70 years ago
Estimates are that there are about 1,000 World War II veteran dying each day. When the United States commemorates the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy in 2014 and the anniversary of the end of the war in 2015, the ranks of those who survived the epic battles of that war will be thin. AOL Autos takes a drive into history in a Jeep Wrangler to reconnect with one of our fallen heroes who never made it beyond the age of twenty-four.
World War II occupies a special place in American culture, even today. Perhaps that's because it was the last war fought by the U.S. with such clarity of purpose going in, as well as clarity of victory at the end. Feature films and and books continue to come out, and more movies are in development to break when we mark anniversaries in 2014 and 2015.
There were an estimated 416,000 American military deaths recorded in World War Two, with two of them coming from my family. There were an additional 1,700 civilian deaths attributed to the war--Pearl Harbor, civilian volunteers working and living abroad, etc. There were a total of 16,112,566 Americans who served one branch or another of the military during World War Two.
There is hardly an American family that doesn't have a connection to World War II; parents grandparents, uncles, cousins who fought in the war or at least played a role in defeating the Axis forces of Germany, Japan and Italy. In that war, after all, unlike the wars fought today, even civilians played a big role--living through food rationing, organizing metal and rubber drives, selling and buying war bonds, working in defense plants, and even, like my own Mother, training as coastal airplane spotters.
[If you want to follow WW2 history day by day on Facebook through the letters of David Kiley's parents' and news nuggets that he has culled to give you a picture of what war-life was like 70 years ago, like Kiley's Facebook page Forever and Always here.]
My father, Charles Kiley, led a story-filled, exciting war. A correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, he finished the war at the side of General Dwight Eisenhower, covering the future President as he and his staff negotiated the final surrender by Germany. But he had a brother, Eddie, who lived a very different war. An infantryman in the Fifth Armored Division, he was killed on December 11, 1944 at the age of 24 in a place called the Huertgen Forest in western Germany.
For most of my life, all I knew of my Uncle Eddie was what I could see in a painting done by my Uncle John. Too, there was a photo of my father and Eddie in London when they found themselves together on one of Eddie's few leaves. But that, and just a few stories my father imparted, were all I had to go on--until recently. My cousin Annice had four cans of 8mm film laying in the bottom of her closet. She gave them to me, and I had them converted to DVD. The results were heart rending. It was film shot by my Uncle John of my father on his induction day in 1941, my parents wedding day in 1944, as well as the first moving pictures I have ever seen of Eddie. A clip is included in our video here. He is young, good looking and full of possibilities in the moving pictures.
Eddie has been a mystery that tugged at my curiosity for years. Before all the WW2 veterans are gone, and we can no longer commemorate and mark their sacrifices with them in our midst, I wanted to forge a closer connection to the uncle I never knew. So, I went to see the battlefield where he was killed, and, for the first time, to his grave in Belgium.
In the summer of 2011, I began working on a book to chronicle the war that my father covered for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, that brought my parents together, that my Mother lived through as a home-front bride and that took the life of my uncle and a cousin. That book will come out by the end of 2014. But you can take a short journey for a few minutes with me into December 1944 with our video here.