70 Years after VE Day, World War II Generation’s Sacrifices Endure

As Americans, we must ensure that the stories of past and present heroes reach future generations.

By Tom Sileo Published on May 7, 2015

On May 7, the world will observe the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to Allied Forces in Europe. As our nation reflects on VE Day, the astonishing sacrifices made by millions of Americans during World War II have enduring relevance, particularly as a new generation steps forward to serve.

To understand the valor of U.S. troops and military families, every American should visit Arlington National Cemetery. With countless heroes and their loved ones resting together for eternity, you will not find a more significant 624 acres than what many call “America’s most hallowed ground.”

One of many heroes buried at Arlington is U.S. Army Maj. Audie Murphy. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Murphy — despite being underage and underweight — resolved to do whatever it took to join the Armed Forces during World War II. By the end of his military career, Murphy had received the Medal of Honor, along with a staggering variety of additional medals, for heroism in combat. HISTORY has this stirring account of the 19-year-old Texas soldier’s now-legendary acts of bravery on Jan. 26, 1945:

Despite the hail of Allied artillery shells, fresh waves of German infantrymen continued inching toward Murphy’s position. One squad tried to make a flanking maneuver on his right side, only to be cut down in a hail of pinpoint fire from his .50-caliber gun. As Murphy continued his one-man attack, German gunners riddled his smoldering tank destroyer with small arms and tank fire. One blast nearly threw him from the vehicle and sent razor sharp shrapnel flying into his leg, but he took no account of the wound and kept fighting. It was only when Murphy ran out of ammunition that he finally withdrew. Dazed and bloodied, he jumped from the still-burning tank destroyer and limped to his men. He later wrote that as he walked away, one thought in particular kept racing through his mind: “How come I’m not dead?”

Murphy’s men were no doubt wondering the same thing. It was the “greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen,” a stunned Abramski later wrote. “For an hour he held off the enemy force singlehanded, fighting against impossible odds.’ Murphy had personally killed or wounded some 50 enemy troops and directed artillery against dozens more. Even after reaching safety, he refused to be evacuated from the field and instead rallied his men in a counterattack that drove the Germans back into the woods.

Audie Murphy was hailed a national hero and awarded the Medal of Honor for his jaw dropping exploits at Holtzwihr. Not wanting to risk the life of its newest celebrity soldier, the Army reassigned him as a liaison officer and did its best to keep him out of combat until the war ended. By then, the battle-hardened G.I. had endured three wounds, a nasty case of malaria, gangrene and more dead friends than he cared to remember. “There is VE-Day without,” he wrote of his mixed feelings at the war’s end, “but no peace within.”

Murphy, who told his incredible story in the 1949 memoir To Hell and Back, also played himself in the 1955 film of the same name. He wound up having a long career as a Hollywood movie star.

Audie Murphy's grave-300Audie Murphy died in a plane crash in 1971. Among the large list of notable figures to attend his funeral was a future president and fellow World War II veteran: George H.W. Bush.

Nearly 62 years after Murphy’s legendary battle, another 19-year-old U.S. Army soldier — Spc. Ross McGinnis — dove on top of an enemy grenade in Adhamiyah, Iraq. In a final, ultimate act of selflessness to shield his brothers in arms, the Pennsylvania warrior saved the lives of his fellow soldiers on Dec. 4, 2006. McGinnis was laid to rest at Arlington.

More than 37 years after his father attended the funeral of Maj. Audie Murphy, President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to the family of Spc. Ross McGinnis.

Ross McGinnis grave-300“When Ross McGinnis was in kindergarten, the teacher asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up,” the nation’s 43rd president said. “He drew a soldier.”

Growing up somewhere — perhaps in a town or city near you — is the next Audie Murphy or Ross McGinnis. As our children blossom into future leaders, they must learn about the heroes of our country’s past and present generations, especially as thousands of Americans continue to serve in harm’s way.

Less than six months before his death, President John F. Kennedy — a World War II veteran — delivered one of his most famous speeches at American University in Washington:

We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough — more than enough — of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just.

Not far from the graves of Maj. Audie Murphy, Spc. Ross McGinnis and thousands of American heroes from every armed conflict since the Civil War, you can visit the resting place of our nation’s 35th president. As we mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day, we must also renew our commitment to ensuring that like the eternal flame at President Kennedy’s grave, these stories of heroism and sacrifice burn just as brightly for future generations.

Tom Sileo is a Senior Editor of The Stream. He is co-author of Brothers Forever: The Enduring Bond between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended their Ultimate Sacrifice.

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