Return to Vietnam – Part I
In 1971 I couldn’t have imagined that someday I’d be welcome in the presidential palace in Saigon–a place constantly in the nightly news during the war.
World War II is still very much alive in our media and our consciousness, as I’ve noted in recent blog posts. But one of that war’s offspring, the Vietnam War, hasn’t gone away either. Six decades after it began for Americans, that war too lives on in much the same way. This past April 30 marked an important date in both wars. On that day seventy years ago, in 1945, Hitler killed himself and effectively ended the Second World War. And on that day 40 years ago, in 1975, the North Vietnamese Army took Saigon and ended the divisive Vietnam War. A flurry of news reports and documentaries commemorated the latter anniversary date, but I had time to watch only one. That was because I was about to commemorate the war’s end in a more vivid and personal way. By coincidence, my first return to Vietnam since serving there both in a base camp and as an infantryman occurred just days after this significant date.
German refugees fleeing Russian onslaught in Kurland, October 1944. Photo from Bundesarchiv.
The tragic refugee problem makes headlines every day. Dramatic photo and video scenes repeatedly show us a mass of impoverished humanity on the move. In many of us fortunate enough to have a permanent home in which we’re viewing or reading these stories, the reports evoke empathy. But in some they also produce indifference, or even outrage. Such people are angered that their country is overwhelmed with migrants. Supporting refugees is never cheap and there can be major social consequences from an influx of people of a different culture and religion.
So what is the world to do with the millions of people who have lost their country? As massive and unprecedented as today’s problem sounds, the world faced an even more desperate crisis after World War II—one I described in The Secret She Carried. At that time millions of people were forced to flee the fighting as the Eastern Front fighting pushed into the Soviet Union, then reversed course and ran westward back to Germany. In today’s crisis, the dead number in the thousands. But in the earlier crisis over two million of the 15 million ethnic Germans who were forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe died. Continue reading
Oskar and Erich at Tomaselli Cafe in Salzburg, June 2015.
In The Secret She Carried, an account of two German soldiers meshes with my mother’s story. Oswald Lustig and Oskar Halusa were my Uncle Eduard Hajek’s closest school friends and still teens when they first saw combat. Somehow, both came through the hellish fighting despite multiple life-threatening wounds. Sadly, Eduard didn’t.
I’d been communicating with both men for some time before our first face-to-face meeting in 2010. Fortunately for me, each had put considerable time and effort into preserving memories of their southern Moravian Sudeten homeland over the years. In Germany, Oswald had assembled several books about his part of Moravia and was still an indefatigable information gatherer at age 86 when I spent a couple of days in his home. He was a gracious host and I left loaded with new information. Continue reading
The end of World War II
Photo showing relative size of British bombs of the Second World War. They ranged from 500 lb to 12,000 lb. As the main recipient of such bombs from Britain and America, Germany remains a graveyard for unexploded bombs. Some 2,000 tons of them are discovered annually. [Photo created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain; Wikimedia Commons, Raf ww2 bombs.jpg]
Did World War II in Europe end 70 years ago in May 1945? If you read my earlier two part post on the subject (Those Pesky World Wars–they just won’t go away
), you’d know that on a true/false history exam or quiz show, true
would be the correct answer. But outside of that context, false
would also be correct. Technically, the fighting in the European Theater ended with the surrender of Germany, and then in the Pacific Theater a few months later. However, in a way, the war lived on because it left many problems unresolved and created new tensions and turmoil when the victors took or redistributed territory and drew illogical borders through former colonial possessions. The resulting troubles and unresolved issues brought about struggles that to this day show no signs of disappearing. Examples abound in the Middle East, Southern Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe. Continue reading
One of several recently released NOAA wartime photographs of U-576 and its crew that had been gathered by U-boat historian, Ed Caram, who died last year. Courtesy of NOAA.
The World War I veterans are gone now, but the lingering effects and presence of that war are still remembered and felt today. The observance of the hundredth anniversary of the event that sparked the war—the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28th—took place this summer. As much as that older war is imbued in our history and culture, World War II looms larger not just because it was larger, but because it is still recent enough to be felt by the families of men who fought in it. As enormous as the monetary cost of both wars was, the cost in lives—up to 16 million for WW I, and up to 80 million for WW II—was even more staggering.