On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought of my father, who died several years ago. James Emerson Wallis, Sr. was commissioned in the Navy, graduated from college at the University of Michigan, and was married — all on the same June day in 1945! After a very quick honeymoon, my Dad was sent out almost immediately to the Pacific as the engineering officer on a destroyer minesweeper. I heard most about that day, and the days that followed, while sitting with my father on the benches at the World War II Memorial shortly after it opened in Washington, D.C. I soon realized why there were so many benches there — so old war veterans could sit down for a while, even for hours, to remember and tell their stories to the ones they most love.
For his 80th birthday, our family invited my dad to go anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He said he wanted to go to Oxford, England, to see the where his favorite Christian author C.S. Lewis lived — and then he wanted to go to Normandy, where so many of his high school buddies died on D-Day. He wanted to go to those beaches and to that special place himself to see the memorials to his friends. So we did both. My father got to sit at the desk of C.S. Lewis with a big smile on his face. Then I took my dad and my father-in-law to that very solemn place where American and Allied soldiers paid such a heavy human cost in perhaps the most historically significant military action in history.
My father and his young friends believed they were trying to stop an enormous evil from talking over the world, and most of them enlisted. My dad’s story in the Pacific, and the stores of those who went to Europe, shaped the rest of his life and theirs. And our memories of them still shape all of our lives. For my father, his experience did not produce an endorsement of war or automatic support for all the wars that were to follow WWII. On the benches at the WWII Memorial, we talked about how he had turned against the Vietnam War and how he was so emphatically opposed to the War in Iraq, which we were then still in the middle of. Some of the veterans of D-Day I heard interviewed today made the same point about opposing our recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
On the bench at the war memorial, my dad talked about the horrors of war more than the glories. And while he still supported the Allied effort, he also spoke of things he had seen during the war that still haunted him. For example, my father’s ship had been asked to bring a small group of analysts to Hiroshima soon after the first atomic bomb was dropped on that city. Their job was to assess the damage to buildings and infrastructure, and my father was asked to accompany the civilian scientists to the island that had been targeted. Therefore, my dad was one of the first people in the world to see the massive destruction caused by exploding the first nuclear weapon. He, along with most Americans, had supported the nuclear attack, which they believed helped to end the war with Japan. But on the bench of the war memorial, that day, he told me about the little 5-year old girl who they met when she came out from behind the ruins of one leveled building; she was totally alone with only tattered rags on her body. They all knew she was going to die. He could still remember the look on her sad and scared young face, and he began to cry now as an 80 year old man, 60 years later. “She had nothing to do with that war, and that’s what I hate about war,” my father said.
For the sacrifices of my dad and mom’s generation, I remain very grateful. I shed a few tears today listening to the old veteran’s stories again — and remembering some of the lessons that they learned.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, will be released this spring. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.