This story appears in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Seventy-five years ago, the most far-flung, destructive, and lethal war in history approached its end. World War II lived up to its name: It was a true global conflict that pitted the Allied powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China, and their smaller allies—against Germany, Japan, Italy, and a few other Axis nations. Some 70 million men and women served in the armed forces, taking part in the greatest military mobilization in history. Civilians, however, did most of the suffering and dying. Of the estimated 66 million people who perished, nearly 70 percent—some 46 million—were civilians, including six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Tens of millions more were uprooted from their homes and countries, many of them living in displaced persons camps for years to come.
The war’s aftereffects were as staggering as its scale. It laid the groundwork for the world we’ve known for more than seven decades, from the dawn of the nuclear age to the creation of Israel to the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as the world’s dueling superpowers. It also sparked the formation of international alliances such as the United Nations and NATO, all designed to prevent such a cataclysm from happening again.
Yet, with the passage of time, public awareness of the war and its almost unfathomable consequences has faded, becoming as dim as the sepia tones of an old photograph. At the same time, firsthand witnesses are dwindling in number. According to U.S. government statistics, fewer than 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war—2.5 percent—were still alive in 2019.
But thanks to the willingness of some of the last survivors to share their stories, we’ve been given a valuable gift: a chance to bring the war into sharp focus again by viewing it through their eyes. With no access to the internet or other forms of today’s instant communications, most of these men and women knew little of the world beyond their communities before the war. By wrenching them out of their familiar settings, it exposed them to an overwhelming array of new experiences and tested them in previously unimaginable ways. Many found the challenges exhilarating.
That was true for 18-year-old Betty Webb, who was recruited to join Britain’s top secret code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park. Webb was one of countless women whose work was crucial to their countries’ war efforts and who, in the process, found a sense of self-worth and independence they’d never known before.
Harry T. Stewart, Jr., the 20-year-old grandson of a man born into slavery, proved himself as well. A New Yorker who had never driven a car before the war, Stewart became a fighter pilot in the famed all-black unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen, flying 43 combat missions and winning a Distinguished Flying Cross.
These triumphs are inspiring and should be celebrated. Yet what dominates the survivors’ stories are the tragedies experienced by so many of them, Allied and Axis alike. Their accounts are testament to the sheer hell of World War II—the brutality, suffering, and terror experienced, and inflicted, by both sides. Particularly haunting is the testimony of Victor Gregg, a British soldier captured by the Germans. His prison was destroyed in the Allied fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Gregg, who witnessed the fiery deaths of German civilians there—some 25,000 perished—was left with an abiding sense of guilt and shame. “These were women and children,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. We were supposed to be the good guys.” His story, like the others, should remain indelibly imprinted on our minds.
Lynne Olson is the author of Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War. This is her
first story for National Geographic.
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