Sources estimate that World War II veterans are dying at the rate of about 1,000 per day. Valiant attempts have been made to capture something of that war and the people who fought it, and it seems that the good attempts- the really good ones- involve Stephen Ambrose one way or another.
My grandfather, George F. Aspinwall, or Pop Pop, was a glider pilot in WWII. To have heard him describe it, for most guys the choice to fly gliders was as simple as the pay raise that came with it. But they had all heard that the life expectancy of a glider pilot in combat was 17 seconds (as compared to the 19 minutes fighter pilots were given or the luxurious 1 hour and 46 minutes the bombers had.)
The gliders of WWII were a fascinating idea- designed to silently fly into tight places delivering men, guns and even jeeps. But they were also sitting ducks, constructed mainly of canvas and pipe or wood. They were built to be “one mission crafts” and Pop Pop said every landing was essentially a crash landing.
My grandfather participated in Operation Market Garden, an allied mission to secure a series of bridges in German occupied Holland. It was one of the few missions the allies undertook that failed. Before he died, I asked him to tell me about his experiences, which he did.
I was 30, and it was the first time I had even thought to ask about it. And the reason I wanted to know now was because I had read and then watched the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers” by Stephen E. Ambrose.
What strikes me about the men who fought in that war is that they themselves were reticent to be known as heroes, yet considered the men they served alongside to be just that.
And they remember well what they experienced there. To hear Pop Pop talk about anti-aircraft fire coming up through the canvas between his legs as he flew over enemy lines was like hearing him talk about something that happened only last week. Which brings me back to Stephen Ambrose.
Band of Brothers has little, if anything, to do with gliders. But it is the story of men from the same generation fighting in the same war. It is the epic account of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army- a company that took 150% casualties during their tenure in the European theater. Ambrose leads us through their beginnings in basic training (July 1942), through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, all the way to the taking of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in May of 1945.
What Ambrose give us with his accounting of World War II is a gift–a very thoughtful and irreplaceable one. What he gives is oral tradition, the stories and descriptions of that war in the words of those who died in it or lived through it. He generously saturates his writing with the actual words of the people he’s interviewed or the letters he’s examined or the journals he’s pored over–from both sides of the trenches.
It seems men of that generation didn’t like to talk about themselves as much as my generation does. So if I wanted to know Pop Pop’s stories, I’d have to ask. Ambrose lit a fire under me to do just that, and just in time. I feel indebted to him for this precious gift of knowing some of Pop Pop’s stories. And I wanted to know Pop Pop’s stories because Ambrose had already told me so many others in Band of Brothers.
That’s what his World War II books do. In them, Ambrose gathers and arranges the words of a generation that is passing away quickly so that he might tell their story and in so doing help teach us a bit of our own.
(The HBO mini-series by the same name is excellent as well. You can also pick up other Ambrose World War II titles like The Wild Blue, D-Day, Pegasus Bridge and Citizen Soldiers.)