By now it’s a cliche to speak of the ‘greatest generation’ –– children of the Great Depression, who emerged from a level of poverty and starvation that we can scarcely imagine, to fight the injustices being wrought in Europe. Cynics among us are rightly skeptical that any war –– no matter how apparently just its cause –– can be noble, and by extension, that the stories of this generation should be the source of hope or pride.
I know better, but to understand why, you must recognize which stories to remember.
Those who study military history will always be able to speak of the machines, the tactics, and the battles of war, but all of us must speak of the people. We must imagine what it would have been like for our high school graduating class –– a bunch of teenagers who grew up with very little, because the stock market had destroyed their parents’ jobs –– to decide to go overseas, and fight an empire that seemed bent on conquest. In a time before social media campaigns could raise funds for NGOs, these young men and women had no other choice than to join a vast mechanism of state –– an army, navy or air force –– to try to make a difference.
But when you talk to them, you quickly discover they didn’t do so because they thought of themselves as ‘the greatest generation’. They weren’t the wise, gray-haired grandparents we all know today; like us, they were kids facing an uncertain world, who didn’t know what their first job might be, and who wanted to stick together with their friends. Millions of teenagers, who today would be snapping photos of each other at clubs they’d snuck into, were sent to fight the bloodiest war in human history:
And when they came back, having defeated that great villain, they chose to build a world in which people didn’t have to worry whether they could afford to see a doctor, or wonder how they’d buy groceries if they lost a job through no fault of their own. They built the systems we argue so passionately about today, because after growing up as they did, and seeing the world through a lens of war, they decided to make a difference.
They weren’t perfect. We’re not perfect. But they did great things, and so can we.
It will do us well to learn their stories –– to understand their stories, not just as the textbooks and the movies record them. We should talk to those who went, ask what they thought and how their lives were like ours. We should do that… but soon, we won’t be able to. As these men and women come to the end of their years, our opportunity is lost. Perhaps we are doomed never to see the world through their eyes.
Or, perhaps, there is another way.
In Canada, many of our young men joined the navy. Often, those who wound up on ships had never before seen the sea –– they learned about life on the water by joining a tiny little ship in a war against Hitler’s most feared submarines. So many of them died, frozen or on fire, and terrified. Many more survived to come home, and some of those remain with us. I’ve met a few, and I’m grateful to have talked to them –– not because I revere the killing of their time, but because knowing what they were able to survive gives me hope for today.
Their stories need to be told, and told again. We must put their tales in places where we can find them, come to grips with them, and feel them.
One of those places is close at hand.
One of Canada’s tiniest ships –– just one –– remains with us. There used to be hundreds like her, but now only HMCS Sackville remains, and just by going aboard her, you can learn so much.
Imagine what it would be like, to be shot at and in terror while running across a deck littered with hard metal obstacles, any of which could trip you and send you head-first into a sheet of ice-cold steel.
Imagine what it would be like, every night, to eat at a pitching cafeteria table squeezed tight with your ten best friends –– half of you seasick, none of you able to stand up all the way because you’d hit your heads.
Imagine what it would be like, traveling to the middle of the Atlantic and back, over and over, no matter the season. Imagine getting all the way to Ireland, meeting someone there and falling in love. Imagine coming face to face with the hated enemy, and discovering that they were just a bunch of kids, same as you –– terrified.
A million stories might be told, and thousands of them are alive within one plucky little ship.
I love visiting Sackville. Anyone who reads these notes knows how I’ve tried endlessly to make her a character in the things I write. But preserving these stories is not something she can do entirely on her own. That’s why I’m most impressed by the determination of Canada’s Naval Memorial Trust –– the ship’s operators, and protectors –– to do more. The members that organization, of which I am now a proud part, know that imagination can go only so far; that if we’re to make all these stories real for people today and in the future, Sackville needs a home.
They’re calling that home Battle of the Atlantic Place. They’ve imagined it already, not as a museum, but as the ship’s living room. There, Sackville can rest agelessly beneath the shelter of glass and steel, surrounded by the pictures, sounds, and stories of all those young men who went with her to war. Whoever visits, no matter where they are from, or what generation they belong to, will be able to see themselves in her life — feel themselves in her stories.
And that will help all of them… all of us… to better understand what we might do, or must never do, as we make our way in a world no less complex, or fraught with danger.
Each of us is a sum of our stories… but the beauty of stories is that we don’t need to live them, in order for them to become ours. Sackville will continue to give us the gift of stories, and her new home will help make those stories real.
Bring on Battle of the Atlantic Place.