For Americans approaching adulthood at the beginning of the 1940s there were two defining events that would impact the rest of their lives, the Great Depression and World War II – the latter, of course, recalled as the last “good” global conflict, if that is not a contradiction in terms.
As the numbers of those who experienced its horrors firsthand decline steadily, it has become important to listen as intently as possible to their recollections, if for no other reason than to understand that in a world now questioning the justification for any military intervention, there are times when a sacrifice of such magnitude is necessary and right.
The retelling of the experiences of the generation that saved the world from tyranny is especially poignant and important when done in the context of the times through the letters home to loved ones.
Those of us who were only youngsters at the time or who escaped that era altogether can learn a lot from the examination of books by the likes of Robert Dole, the former senator and Republican presidential nominee. His perspective comes from the mud and blood of the battlefield and heroics that left him maimed for life.
But there is another perspective, one of anxiety and boredom and desire for more than a benign contribution to the war effort that was shared by tens of thousands of young American men who, for whatever reason, waited in uniform for the action that never came. That view is expressed in the reflective letters home from a young GI who understood better than most not only what was at stake in the immediate conflagration but also might be expected in its aftermath.
Herman Obermayer was the privileged oldest son of one of Philadelphia’s most prominent Jewish families. His father, Leon Obermayer, was the senior partner in the high-powered law firm that bore his name and his mother, Julia, was, as he described her, a “practical” intellectual who had graduated with honors from Columbia University. Herman, from near infanthood called “Obe,” was insulated from the pressures and deprivation of the Depression. And when he was sworn into the Army in June 1943 as a student at Dartmouth College, it was to be the first leveling experience of his young life.
He not only took it in stride, he recorded much of the experience that he now relays to us in those extraordinarily mature and eloquent letters to his mother and father in a style that seemed to be ensuring that he had not lost his place at the dinner table where intellectual discourse was a nightly occurrence.
“Soldiering for Freedom” (Texas A&M Press) takes us from basic training to France and beyond, where his keen observations foreshadowed his later national prominence as a leading journalist and publisher after eschewing law school and a chance to join his father _ “because we were such good friends, I didn’t want the chance of ruining it by working for him.”
Obe and his pals waited in France through VE Day without action. But these chronicles are as important to the historic perspective as those of one who has seen heavy action, perhaps more given the broader view they encompass. Despite his heritage, the letters and his comments that precede them show an amazing equanimity toward societies that allowed so much bad to happen.
Like Dole, Herman Obermayer at 80 is as perceptive and vital as he was then. As the former proprietor of the Northern Virginia Sun and a consultant in the cause of a freer worldwide press, he remains close to the power structure inside the Beltway. His remembrances, like those of so many who helped save mankind in the 20th century, are not only to be read but also to be treasured.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)