By Jared Olar
Our nation this week marked the 77th anniversary of the Empire of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that triggered the United States’ entry into World War II on the side of the Allies. From that point until the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and Japan in 1945, the entirety of America’s military, industrial, and spiritual might was committed to the war effort.
By the war’s end, the U.S. had lost over 400,000 soldiers in a global shedding of human blood that included anywhere from 21 million to 25.5 million military deaths, 29 million to 30.5 million civilian deaths due to war or to crimes against humanity, and another 19 million to 28 million civilian deaths due to war-related famine and disease. The horrific human cost of the genocidal aims and expansionist ambitions of Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.S.S.R. was an estimated 75 million to 85 million souls.
Most fittingly, the generation in America who bore that terrible burden of suffering, and who afterwards exerted themselves to rebuild and repair their broken world, has come to be known as “The Greatest Generation” (a title bestowed on them by retired NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw). With the blessed conclusion of that conflict receding further and further into the past – it’s now been more than 73 years since the end of World War II – each day that passes there are fewer and fewer men and women left to tell us of their experiences.
These were the fathers and mothers, the grandfathers and grandmothers, and great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers of the current generation. My own father, Joseph, is one of them – but he wasn’t old enough to be drafted until December of 1945, so he avoided all the fighting, instead spending what he says was the most boring year of his life in the U.S. Army’s peacekeeping forces near Manila in the Philippines. How stark is the contrast between his experience and that of those who had liberated the Philippines from Japanese occupation a year before – not to mention the experience of his older brothers who fought in Europe and the Pacific.
It is to help us to remember those times that the Pekin Public Library has provided opportunities this year to view oral histories such as “We Were There: World War II” (shown earlier this year on May 4) and “World War II POW Stories’ (originally scheduled for Friday, Dec. 7, at 11 a.m., but instead to be rescheduled to a time following the completion of the library’s repairs).
The library has a wide area of books and videos on World War II in its circulating collection. The above mentioned videos, however, are just two items among the resources related to the history of World War II that may be found in the library’s Local History Room Collection.
The three most notable World War II-related items in the Local History Room are three books that compile the stories of Tazewell County’s “Greatest Generation.”
Two of those volumes were the work of the late Robert B. Monge of Pekin, who in 1994 authored and edited “WW2 – Memories of Love & War: June 1937-June 1946,” a hefty 991-page book that collects personal stories, newspaper reports, and obituaries of Tazewell County World War II veterans and fallen heroes.
Three years later, in 1997, Monge collaborated with Jack Shepler and the Tazewell County Veterans Memorial Committee to produce the 261-page “Book Eternal: Tazewell County Veterans Memorial,” which tells of the planning and construction of the county’s Veterans Memorial located at the Tazewell County Courthouse lawn in downtown Pekin. “Book Eternal” also lists those whose names are inscribed on the memorial’s stones, which display the names of every Tazewell County soldier who died in the service of his country.
A decade later, in 2007 the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society compiled its own book on the experiences of our local World War II veterans: “Tazewell County Veterans of World War II: Remembrances – Pearl Harbor to V-J Day,” which extends to 488 pages.
About 11 years ago, former Pekin Public Library Reference Librarian Laurie Hartshorn collected and compiled the wartime stories and recollections of 16 local women. Their personal memories are collected in “Women of the Greatest Generation Tell Their Stories.”
The Local History Room Collection also has archival boxes and files of newspaper clippings and World War II-era magazines, and even several donated complete issues of the Pekin Daily Times from those years.
One of those newspapers is the “Victory Edition” of the Pekin Daily Times, published Dec. 31, 1945. The Daily Times that year devoted its traditional “Year In Review” issue to a look back over the nation’s and Pekin’s experiences of the previous four years, preparing and publishing a list of 143 young men from Tazewell County who had been killed in the war, along with extensive Draft Board lists of names of men from Pekin and Morton who been called up to serve their country, including the county’s women who had volunteered as Army and Navy nurses.
Section Two of this special edition is headlined, “6102 Tazewell Men On World War II Honor Roll,” with other headlines including, “Nearly Half of Morton’s 3116 Out of Uniform” and “2986 Are On Pekin List; Estimate 1400 Discharged.” A separate story, “62 Tazewell County Women Serve Country,” is devoted to the honored group of women who had volunteered as WACs (Women’s Air Corps), WAVES (women in the Navy), SPARS (Coast Guard auxiliary), and the Marines women’s auxiliary force.
The special edition also struck a somber tone, however, reminding its readers of “Nine Tazewell Boys, Missing In Action, Still Unfound; Families Hold Hope.”
But the mood throughout those yellowed pages was chiefly one of gratitude and joy – gratitude for those who had fought for freedom, and joy that the war was over and peace had returned. Looking back to celebrations and the utter relief at Japan’s surrender that ended the war – “V-J Day,” “Victory-over-Japan Day” – the special edition recalled that “V-J Day Was 1945’s Gayest Day In Pekin.”
In keeping with what Bob Monge wrote, may we never forget the men and women of that generation whose names are, or soon will be, written in God’s Book Eternal.