Memorial Day weekend is a fitting time to finish reading The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, the final volume of Rick Atkinson’s deservedly praised Liberation Trilogy.
The author makes extensive use of servicemen’s letters home. None are more heartwrenching than those that proved to be last words to beloved mothers and fathers, wives, girlfriends, and children. One of many such stories:
With less than six weeks remaining in the war, an American B-24 was shot down near Wesel, Germany.
“The eight dead crewmen included First Lieutenant Earle C. Cheek of Missouri, the navigator, a ‘genial friend a good companion and a lovable comrade,’ according to the unit chaplain. Cheek had survived many harrowing sorties in bombing runs from Italy and then from England: crewmen wounded on his thirteenth mission; an emergency landing in France on his fifteenth; two engines knocked out on his seventeenth; and flak damage to the wings, tail and bomb bay over Magdeburg on his twenty-first. This was his thirtieth, the one that would fulfill his quota and send him home. ‘It shouldn’t take much longer,” he had written his girlfriend in Texas on March 18. “‘There are so many things we could do together.'” (564)
After the war, “all twelve U.S. military cemeteries [in Germany] were emptied; no dead GI would knowingly be left in the former Reich.” The remains were moved to other cities. At one, the Ninth Army cemetery in Margraten, Dutch citizens observed Memorial Day, May 30, 1945. They “gathered flowers from sixty villages and spread them like a brilliant quilt across seventeen thousand graves.” (638)
In a speech in England, General Dwight Eisenhower remarked: “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.” Years later the words were engraved on his tomb in Kansas. (636)