WWI Father, WWII Son: A Generational Perspective
Allan Howerton, WW2 veteran, retired federal civil servant, and author, traces post-war politics and the evolution of his own memories beginning with his father's experience as a seaman in WWI:
My father was a fireman on a destroyer protecting Atlantic convoys during WW I. His stories, when I was six or seven years old, were about tensions -- even fights -- of life aboard a crowded warship; nothing else about the war.
As the Great Depression came on he lost his factory job. We moved to a country village in Kentucky where he grew up. On Memorial Day and Armistice Day "old" WW I veterans marched in their uniforms. They were old, really old; over thirty, dour expressions, leathery faces, bowed backs.
They whetted the imagination. We kids built a replica of a battlefield on a railroad bank; a game board, elaborate rules. BB guns and slingshots knocked down stick soldiers. Lumps of coal became artillery destroying bunkers and scarring the landscape; weeds, not poppy fields. Oval-topped Crosley radios, spouting angry sounds of Nazi rallies in Germany, flooded our ears. Looking back, our battle works foretold our future.
We marched off to WW II. The Wilsonian "war to end all wars" had failed. On May 8, 1945 along the West bank of the Elbe River, forty-five kilometers from Berlin, we tallied the cost: Forty-two killed in action, more than 300 wounded, sick, missing, or prisoners in my infantry company alone -- in just six months. I emerged physically intact with a shattered psyche.
At a university in England we debated the causes of both wars, my father's and my own: nationalism, power, greed, pride and stupidity. The ideas of Karl Hanshofer, the German geopolitics scholar writing after WW I, argued over warm beer, brought little consensus; humankind's dilemma.
As a student at the University of Denver, we searched for solutions. If nationalism was the cause internationalism must prevail. If the League of Nations was blamed, the United Nations corrected. At a questing seminar, the charisma of Alger Hiss, the dashing young executive director of the San Francisco UN conference, bolstered hopes. Then Hiss was accused as a Soviet spy.Poof! Idealism shattered.
A little book by banker/economist John Maynard Keynes -- "The Economic Consequences of the Peace" -- nailed the Versailles Treaty, which saddled postwar Germany with debts and reparations it could never pay, set a direction that was to become World War II. The fuzzy, maligned science of economics got it right this time. The battlefield on the railroad bank materialized.
Finally, I would write my story of it all. An early-life autobiography would capture the time of the Great Depression and the run up to the war, a memoir would tell the day-to-day-story of Company K and my struggle for survival, and a postwar novel tried to penetrate the long psychic tussle to make me whole again. But the war never really left me. "Only the dead can see the end of war" George Santayana, the 20th century essayist/novelist/ /philosopher/poet is reputed to have said. Generations to come will determine if he got it right.
Allan Wilford Howerton, a Western Kentucky native, is a World War II infantry veteran and a retired federal civil servant. He is a graduate of the University of Denver (B.A. in international relations,1948; M.A.,1951) He also studied at Drexel University and Shrivenham American University, England. Following retirement, he worked in local politics and was a founder and general manager of a local cable television channel. He writes, Allan says, for the joy of remembering and to put off, as long as possible, the perils of forgetting. He and his wife, Joan, a registered nurse, live in Alexandria, Virginia.