Tuesday, May 3, 2005

On the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a tribute to the greatness of those who built the subsequent peace.

Tom Brokaw’s best seller, The Greatest Generation, is about the veterans of World War II. Returning with some of them to the Normandy beaches, the NBC anchor found himself grateful for all they had done and realized he had failed to appreciate what they had been through and accomplished. He describes them as a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanour and says that for many the war years were enough adventure to last a lifetime.

I am sure that many of us in Britain would say the same of our veterans as we mark the 60th anniversary of the ending of the war. But I think at this time of those soldiers, sailors and airmen who found even greater adventure after the war - by reaching out the hand of friendship to the Japanese and Germans whether they had fought them at the Battle of the Bulge or on the islands of the Pacific. Have we appreciated their achievement?

Melville Carson and David Howell were both shot down over Germany and have spent these sixty years in the forefront of work to heal the differences with our former enemy, and by doing so have helped lay the cornerstones of a peaceful Europe we now take for granted. Dick Channer who fought the Japanese in Burma has been to Japan to help build what he calls a spiritual bridge across the River Kwai and Les Dennison, who was captured at Singapore and worked on the infamous Burma railway, has also reached out the hand of friendship to the Japanese. At an international conference a Japanese general bowed low to him and apologized for the suffering which had been inflicted on him. Les told me, ‘It was the beginning of a remarkable change in my attitude. For a long time I felt bitterness and hatred but I don’t want that to be passed on to the second generation.’

The greatness of that generation of Allies found echo in great souls who had fought against them and who despite the disillusionment of giving their lives to a flawed cause gave them once again in the service of democracy.

Men like Hideo Nakajima, who was trained as a kamikaze human torpedo and was saved by the ending of the war, and poured himself into creating a new Japan. He describes going to Manila soon after the war and meeting a woman whose family had been burned alive by Japanese. She had asked him: ‘How could you be so cruel?’ ‘What could a Japanese say,’ he writes. ‘In the end I said, “I am very, very sorry. I want to dedicate my whole life to make restitution for the wrongs Japan has done to other nations. I will work and live so that the Japanese never again do such things.”’ That is a life commitment he has stuck to.

Men like Peter Petersen, a Nazi soldier who faced repentance, found forgiveness and became one of the architects of a new Germany. He died last month. His willingness to face up to his past won him the respect and friendship of Jewish leaders and enabled him to give leadership as a senior member of the German parliament.

Another friend from that period is John Pribram who was born in Prague and escaped the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia by a dramatic journey to the US. He was educated at Harvard and returned to Europe as a combat medic with the US Army infantry. He lost a leg helping two wounded men in a minefield and received a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for gallantry in action. After the war he was invited to stay on in Germany to work with Petersen and others in the reestablishment of democracy.

It took him a while to decide to give up his hatred for the country that was responsible for the death of his parents and the occupation of his country. But as he told me, 'After losing my leg in combat, I committed my life to God, searching for his will every day. It changed my life. Every day can be a fresh experience, where Jesus is my very best friend putting right what’s wrong in my life and helping other in the creation of a better world. He healed my bitterness.' Pribram accepted the invitation and spent several years in Germany.

Some forty years later he received a letter of thanks from Germans who met him then. They wrote, ‘You helped to turn desperation and resignation into faith and active responsibility. You built friendships, personally and in national dimensions. You helped to lay a foundation of confidence in a democratic way of organizing society and international relations.’

Now a retired teacher in Tulsa, Pribram writes in his book Horizons of Hope, 'When I first visited France and Germany after World War II anything seemed possible, except a reconciliation between these two nations. Thanks to many courageous people, friendship between those two great European nations is an accepted fact.'

A great generation, indeed.

This commentary first appeared on www.spiritrestoration.org