Growing up in the late 1960s and early ’70s, World War II was everywhere.

Of course, the war was over. World War II had ended 20-30 years prior to my single-digit years. By everywhere, I mean, the effects of World War II were everywhere. The echoes of the war remained.

The war had shaped the world. Political structures, alliances, even the politicians were all products of the war. I was a kid, though. I didn’t really understand all of that stuff then but, even for a kid, the war was a regular part of life.

As kids, we had no idea what the war was really about other than the Nazis and the Japanese had been the bad guys. Shoot, we didn’t even get the name of the war right for many years. As children, a bunch of us thought it was called “War War II” not World War II.

Yet, our toys were G.I. Joes and little, green Army men, as well as toy Tommy guns and toy Army helmets. Whenever we played war, as boys regularly did then, we would always be the Americans.

Unlike cowboys and Indians, where we were willing to be either cowboys or Indians, we were not willing to be the Nazis. We were all American soldiers facing entire battalions of imaginary Nazis.

The ideas for our imaginary battles came from watching the bazillion World War II movies on TV. This was back before cable and usually only one TV set per house, so, when Dad watched a war movie, the entire family watched a war movie. Quite often, a war movie was the only thing on TV.

To us, John Wayne was World War II.

We didn’t realize that the real World War II was all around us in the forms of grandfathers, fathers, uncles, neighbors, principals, teachers, the guy who repaired TVs, the man who went to work every day, the fellow taking up the collection at church.

We were surrounded by World War II and didn’t fully realize it or appreciate it. We were kids and these men seemed more like Jimmy Stewart characters than John Wayne characters.

In the movies, it was Jimmy Stewart who sat out the war staying home to fight the battle of Bedford Falls in movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” while John Wayne was fighting and dying in “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” Of course, in the real world, it was Jimmy Stewart who went to war while John Wayne stayed stateside making movies.

We didn’t know this as kids either. So, we didn’t appreciate that these regular guys were the real heroes of World War II. We didn’t know any better. It seems we didn’t know any better until it was almost too late.

You see, those men, whom we thought so ordinary, had more grit and heroism than any John Wayne movie. They fought in horrendous conditions against forces attempting to overthrow the world, and they won.

Their sacrifices were many, and they carried the memories of the Americans who did not return from those battles but when they came home, they raised families, went to school, worked at jobs, built the nation, with more compassion and drive than a character in a Jimmy Stewart movie.

That is one of the extraordinary things about the World War II generation. We didn’t treat them like heroes for far too long because, once home, they didn’t seem to act like the heroes we saw in the movies.

We didn’t realize that to see real-life heroes, we didn’t have to park in front of the TV set. They were all around us. Almost everywhere then. We didn’t realize it until they were almost gone and it was almost too late.

Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times.

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