The loss of WWII vets like Frank Lautenberg (and how we can preserve their wisdom)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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With the passing of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg on Monday, for the first time in nearly seventy years, the U.S. Senate is without a veteran of World War II.

As the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog reported,

“The first World War II veteran arrived in the Senate on Nov. 14, 1944 — William E. Jenner of Indiana, said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate historian. There had been a World War II veteran in the Senate ever since, Mr. Ritchie said.


… In all, 115 World War II veterans served in the Senate, according to the Senate Historical Office.”

The obvious point here is that something important is being lost. One doesn’t lose a Greatest Generation, after all, without something important being lost. In this regard, the Senate is America writ large.

* * *

As it happens, this past Friday, my family trekked out to West Virginia to visit my wife’s grandparents.

We had a delightful lunch, and then, poolside — while my wife and boys took a dip — I visited with Ensley Hicks. He graciously permitted me to videotape on my iPhone, while he regaled me with stories of his time serving in the Canadian Army during World War II.

We talked about his brother, who perished in that same war when his plane was shot down (the rest of the crew became POWs). And we talked about how he waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy (albeit, a month, or so, after D-Day.) Here is a very short snipped of our chat:

Maybe it’s because I’m a dad now, and fear information will be lost in translation. Or maybe it’s because of what I do for a living — maybe I’m never not writing? But documenting history is becoming a habit, and I hope, not an annoying one.

My mom was visiting last month and brought with her a photo album. And I hit “record” as she flipped pages, telling us just who these people were (with eleven brothers and sisters, this is not always easy). Have you ever interviewed a relative? I’m going to try to do more of this. We should probably all do more of this. It’s not like we don’t have video cameras with us every waking moment now.

In any event, it is my hope that we will enjoy the company and wisdom of our WWII vets for many years to come. But, as one New Jersey reporter observed days before Sen. Lautenberg’s passing, “The World War II veteran population — 2.91 million on Sept. 30, 2007 — will fall below 1.5 million this year. That is less than one-tenth of the 16 million who served.”

So if you have a loved one who served, maybe give them a call today. And if you can, maybe visit them this week and give them a hug? And bring the kids and grand kids … and an iPhone.

Matt K. Lewis