Sept. 2, 2011 -- VCSA's remarks for commemoration of "VJ Day"
September 9, 2011
Good morning. Thank you, General Kicklighter, for that kind introduction. I am truly honored to be a part of this very special ceremony commemorating the 66th anniversary of the ending of World War II.
Everyone associated with the Friends of the National World War II Memorial. Mr. Vogel. Other general officers. distinguished guests. Veterans of current and past wars. Spouses, and, finally, a very, very special welcome to the Soldiers of the 88th Infantry Division, the "Fighting Blue Devils." You honor us, gentlemen, by your presence.
What a spectacular sight here at this beautiful memorial. with the Washington Monument before me and the Lincoln Memorial in the distance. It is a fitting tribute to the brave and selfless men and women of the "Greatest Generation" who gave so much of themselves in service to our Nation and the cause of freedom.
I will admit, I have a special affection for the generation that fought so valiantly in World War II. My Dad served with the 756th Tank Battalion. He saw action in North Africa, Italy, Southern France, Austria and Germany. "Big Pete," as Dad was affectionately referred to around our neighborhood, was a butcher by trade. During the war -- he earned the Silver Star, our nation's third highest award for valor. Yet, very few people knew that about him, including relatives, neighbors and close friends.
As a kid I often asked him to tell me more about his exploits. He'd always change the subject. He, like many from his generation, never talked about his experiences or his achievements on the battlefield. Soldiers are typically humble folks. When asked for details, they usually respond with the simple explanation that they were 'just doing their job.' Many choose never to speak of their experiences out of respect for those who weren't so fortunate and did not make it home.
For well over half a century, a generation of heroes has gone about their daily lives in cities and towns across this country, while their personal accounts of tragedy and triumph in Europe and the Pacific during World War II are known by very few.
A great example is the story of the 88th Infantry Division. I readily admit, while I consider myself a "history buff," I was unfamiliar with the story of the "Blue Devils'" push through Italy during World War II. Theirs was often referred to as the "quiet war," overshadowed in many ways by more publicized events in other parts of Europe and on the Pacific front.
I read as much as I could about the division and its endeavors while preparing for today's ceremony. Unbelievable stuff. Every account of the division's actions in Italy reads like a war novel, filled with episodes of intense fighting, heroism, gallantry and crucial victories won. While their story may be less well-known as compared to those of the men who fought at Normandy and Iwo Jima; I assure you -- the "Blue Devils'" feats were equally remarkable and, no less critical to the outcome of the war.
According to accounts provided by the Army Historical Foundation , on July 15th 1942, Captain John Quigley, then-President of the 88th Division Veterans Association, challenged several hundred Soldiers gathered around the main flagpole of Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, to [quote] "take up the job we didn't get done" in World War One. In response, Major General John Sloan, Commander of the newly-activated division, promised: "The glory of the colors will never be sullied, as long as one man of the 88th still lives."
Such an austere beginning. And yet, the vow made that day by General Sloan, and subsequently embraced by the Soldiers of the new division, truly reflects the collective altruistic attitude of that generation. They were prepared and willing, if and when called upon, to do whatever was required on behalf of the Nation -- even if it meant losing their own lives.
Over the next several months, the men of the 88th trained and prepared for battle before heading to North Africa in late 1943. In February of 1944, they advanced to Naples, Italy, becoming the very first "draftee" division to enter a combat zone in World War II. Then in early March, the division began the drive to Rome. Along the way, as I mentioned, they engaged in intense fighting, quickly earning a reputation among the German Army as a force to be reckoned with. In fact, according to German prisoners, the division battled "like devils," -- hence the nickname.
Over a four-day period in early May, the Soldiers of the 88th successfully broke through the Gustav Line, capturing a number of German strongholds, including Hill 316, Mount Ceracoli, Mount Rotondo, and the town of Santa Maria Infante. In the subsequent weeks, they faced heavy fighting as they pushed through Amaseno Valley and across Highway 6. Finally, after a brutal battle on the outskirts of the city, on June 4th 1944, the "Blue Devils" entered Rome, successfully capturing the "Eternal City" for the Allies. This represented one of the most significant victories of the war.
After a brief respite, the division continued its drive north in pursuit of the Germans. Over the next ten-plus months, they fought fiercely; toppling the enemy at every turn; winning crucial battles at Volterra, Laiatico and Mt. Battaglia -- two of the battles for which units of the 88th received Distinguished Unit Citations; Mt. del Puntale, Mt. Carnevale, the village of Belvedere, Po Valley, Verona, Vicenza, and elsewhere.
On 2 May 1945, German forces in Italy surrendered unconditionally. The war in Europe ended less than a week later. In total, the 88th spent 344 days in combat, amassing an impressive number of military awards and decorations, including two Medals of Honor, 40 Distinguished Service Crosses, 2 Distinguished Service Medals, over 500 Silver Stars, and nearly 4,000 Bronze Stars. Absolutely amazing.
Their achievements during that period were truly, truly extraordinary. Captured Major General Schulz of the famed 1st Parachute Division -- the pride of the Wehrmacht, told interrogators that, "the 88th division is the best division we have ever fought against." This is high praise from a worthy and humbled opponent. Suffice it to say, the brave men of "Blue Devil" Division played a most decisive role in the defeat of the Germany Army in Italy.
Now, to some it may seem odd to recount the endeavors of a unit that served in Europe at an event commemorating "V-J Day" and the Allied victory in the Pacific. However, I believe it is most appropriate. They may have fought in separate theaters against different enemies. However, their cause was the same to secure peace around the globe. And, their efforts were inextricably linked. Victory would have to be won on all fronts. There could be no compromise.
World War II was fought with Allied elements positioned globally against the Axis Powers --Germany, Italy and Japan. When German forces surrendered in May of 1945 -- due in large part to the efforts of the men of the 88th Division; thereby ending the war in Europe, it relieved pressure in the Pacific, in turn, enabling America and her allies to apply our full measure and attention to the war in the Pacific. This surge ultimately led to Japan's surrender and the official end of World War II.
Today, gathered together at this memorial -- a most fitting tribute to the men and women who fought in World War II; we listen to the incredible stories like the one I just shared about the 88th Division; and, we marvel at the service of an entire generation. Men and women from all over this great Nation left behind their jobs and families and joined military units headed overseas. Many of them were 17, 18, 19 years old. They'd never been away from home.
Suddenly they found themselves advancing across North Africa, Europe and the Pacific. They were gone for months or even years at a time, huddled in dark, damp foxholes, anxiously awaiting orders to go ashore aboard cramped vessels, trudging hundreds of miles under the most bitter conditions, seeing an unimaginable amount of devastation and death all around them on an almost daily basis.
To read any account of the events of World War II -- whether by Stephen Ambrose, Rick Atkinson, Jeff Shaara, Geoffrey C. Ward or others -- is to be absolutely amazed and humbled, as well as inspired. Back then, men and women -- young and old, all did their part, in ways big and small to keep a struggling Nation together during incredibly difficult days. They selflessly fought, volunteered and sacrificed until the war was won and the very last Soldier returned home safely. And, then -- they didn't talk about what they'd done. They simply resumed their lives and quietly mourned those left behind.
Unfortunately, there are few who served in World War II still with us today. Most have passed on. However, they are not forgotten. In fact, it is their memory -- and the memory of those who came before them -- that reminds us all each day of the responsibility of every generation to repay the debt owed to those from previous generations. I can assure you, this same purposeful sense of duty is never far from the minds of the young men and women serving around the world today.
Just over one week from now our Nation will mark the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Looking back on the past decade, we have much, much to be proud of. It is remarkable all our servicemen and women and their families have accomplished in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations around the world. I truly believe they represent the next "Greatest Generation."
War is a terrible, terrible thing. That said, in every conflict, amidst the darkness and tragedy, routinely emerge the most incredible accounts of courage, selfless service and sacrifice. And, that is what we remember as we look upon this beautiful memorial and pause briefly on occasions like this one to recount the tales of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen past.
Senator Bob Dole, himself an Army veteran of World War II, at the dedication ceremony held in May of 2004, most appropriately said of this memorial: "What we dedicate today is not a memorial to war, rather it's a tribute to the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys, and inspires Americans in every generation to lay down their lives for people that they will never meet, for ideals that make life itself worth living."
That is what we are called to do in our profession, the profession of arms. To carry on the peace won by past generations, to preserve it for our children and our children's children, while passing on the sense of duty, love of country and selflessness that ensures they will do the same for future generations.
Thanks to all of you here for your service on behalf of our Nation, and for your continued, strong support of our young men and women serving around the world today -- and their families.
May God bless the United States of America.