By U.S. Senator Susan Collins
On Aug. 14, 1945, World War II came to an end. The official ceremony aboard the battleship USS Missouri two weeks later was brief, barely 18 minutes long. The low-key nature of the event stood in stark contrast to the unprecedented horror and violence of the preceding years, years in which the fate of civilization itself hung in the balance.
It is said that crisis builds character. For an entire generation of Americans, crisis did not build character; it revealed it. Today, we express our nation’s gratitude to all veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine for their service and sacrifice seven decades ago.
With the perfect hindsight history books provide, the Second World War can seem today to be a series of events that followed an inevitable course from Pearl Harbor to Normandy to Iwo Jima to the deck of that battleship. Yet those who were there, those who made that history, know that the outcome was far from certain. All that stood between humanity and the abyss of tyranny was their courage, their faith and their devotion to duty.
As the war began, the United States was not a rich or powerful country. We had only the 17th largest army in the world. Our industries were still struggling to overcome a decade of economic depression. With two great oceans as a buffer, many Americans thought the answer to aggression was isolationism.
Yet when the crisis came, Americans responded. More than 16 million American men put on the uniforms of our armed forces. More than 400,000 died wearing those uniforms. Thousands of American women also put on the uniform, serving – and dying – in field hospitals and in such dangerous work as ferrying aircraft from production plant to airfield. They rolled up their sleeves and turned the factories of a peacetime economy into the arsenal of democracy.
Throughout the country, Americans of all ages worked and saved and rationed and sacrificed as never before. Families planted victory gardens – 20 million of them, producing 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables in backyards and on rooftops. Two out of every three citizens put money into war bonds.
The people of Maine were part of this great endeavor. Some 80,000 Mainers served in World War II, more than any previous war. More than 2,500 laid their lives upon the altar of freedom.
I have had the honor of meeting many of Maine’s heroes. Edward Dahlgren of Perham – just a few miles from my hometown of Caribou – fought his way through Italy, France and Germany, and received the Medal of Honor for his astonishing rescue of a trapped American platoon.
Charles Shay, a member of the Penobscot Nation, was among the first wave ashore at Omaha Beach and the first Native American to be awarded the Legion of Honor medal, France’s highest tribute.
Bert Skinner of Belfast answered the call for volunteers for the extremely dangerous mission of serving behind enemy lines with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma.
Through his uncommon service to his community and to his fellow veterans, Galen Cole of Bangor has kept the promise he made to himself on a battlefield in Germany in early 1945.
Maine women served with distinction. Patricia Chadwick Ericson of Houlton stepped forward to serve as a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot, or WASP, flying newly-built aircraft from the factories to combat zones.
Mary Therese Nelson of Indian Island was the first Native American woman from Maine to enlist in the Marine Corps.
Each of the stories of the men and women from Maine are unique, yet they are united by valor and devotion to duty.
On the home front, Maine was on the front lines. Eighty-two destroyers were built at Bath Iron Works during the war, more than the entire Japanese output. The South Portland shipyard launched 274 Liberty ships that carried troops and arms overseas. More than 70 submarines were built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, with three of those vital warships launched on the same day.
Maine’s seafaring heritage contributed greatly to the Merchant Marine, and at least 60 Mainers lost their lives to enemy attack. The Coast Guard and the Civil Air Patrol protected our shores against Nazi U-boats and saboteurs.
These men and women did not come from a society steeped in militarism and the lust for conquest. Whether they came from our cities, farms or fishing villages of Maine, they came from places that desired peace and that cherished freedom. When the crisis came, the American character bound the Greatest Generation together in a great common cause on behalf of humanity.
I am fortunate to be a daughter of that generation. One of my earliest childhood memories is going with my father to the Memorial Day parade in our hometown. He hoisted me high above his head and from the best vantage point along the route – my father’s shoulders – I saw hats go off and hands go over hearts as Caribou paid its respects to our flag and honored our veterans.
Some Memorial Days, my father would wear his Army jacket to the parade. As a child, I thought it was just an old jacket. Only as an adult did I learn the price he had paid for it.
He saw action in the European Theater and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He earned the Combat Infantry Badge, two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. Sergeant Collins was discharged in January of 1946.
Then he did what truly distinguishes the men and women of America’s armed forces. He came home, gratefully and modestly. He never talked much about his sacrifice and the hardships of war. Instead, he worked hard raising six children, running a business, serving as scout leader, member of Rotary, mayor and state senator.
From the strong shoulders of those like him who defended our freedom, all Americans learn about commitment, service and patriotism. We learn that the burden of service must be borne willingly. We learn that challenges must be met and threats must be confronted. We learn that the mantle of hero must be worn with humility. It is because of the quiet courage of those who serve our country that we take those lessons to heart and resolve to pass them on to the generations to come.
On this 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, let us recommit ourselves to the spirit that guided our nation through its darkest days and that lights our way into the future.
Susan Collins is Maine’s senior U.S. Senator.