“When the Lights Go on Again All Over the World”

E. Bruce Heilman

Commencement Address
Campbellsville University
9 May 2015

A man stood at the pearly gates,
His face was scarred and old
He stood before the gate of fate
For admission to the fold.

“What have you done,” Saint Peter asked,
“To gain admission here?”
I’ve been a college president, sir,
For many and many a year.

The pearly gates swung open wide,
Saint Peter touched the bell.
“Come in”, he said, “and choose your harp.
You’ve had your time in hell.”[1]

By Dave Miles
Immaculata College

President Carter, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, families of graduates, guests and especially all those who are graduating. I am honored to be the speaker on this special occasion which honors those who have successfully fulfilled the responsibilities essential to attaining your degree.

This is a special year in my life and it is a historical occasion for our country. August the fourteenth will represent the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two. In respect to that anniversary, I have just returned from two weeks in the South Pacific with seventeen other World War Two veterans representing what was defined as the final deployment of the World War Two generation to the South Pacific, seventy years after we landed on the beaches of those islands to defeat the Japanese.

This year I am a part of the activities of the organization known as the Spirit of ’45[2] engaged in highlighting that seventieth anniversary. So, to you who will regard this subject as ancient history, I want to share something of that time in history. I have chosen as my title “When the Lights go on Again All over the World”[3] or the “Spirit of ’45”.

My presence as your speaker is unique as I’ll be eighty-nine in July. That age sets me aside from most, if not all, of those facing audiences of this kind. Few other World War Two veterans are commanding such podiums as this one. At the last reunion of my fellow Marines from the battle of Okinawa[4] I was told that I had to speak because I was the only one who could stand up long enough.

Ninety-four percent of the 16 million who served in World War Two are deceased and the fewer than 1 million remaining are dying at a rate of 25 thousand a month. Five years from now, most will have succumbed to the end result of old age. So you caught me just in time.

My age would also suggest that I address you while sitting down. But that would defeat my purpose of keeping you awake just to see whether I am still standing when I finish.

While we of my generation are not prehistoric, we are, to some of you, ancient. Having lived through the Great Depression as well as World War Two, we carry with us impacting experiences unique in history. The spirit of the war years can only be understood within the context of the trauma of the years of the Great Depression. It was the war that finally extricated the country from that nightmare. The hardships suffered by those who endured those years in many ways prepared them for facing the challenges of a world-at-war.

At its height, 273 thousand families were evicted from their homes. Without any income at all, they were unable to pay either mortgages or rent.

Ten thousand banks closed, 175 thousand school systems failed to open.  And while the stock market crash caused those losing their wealth to jump out of tall buildings in New York, it didn’t stop there. My own grandfather with a wife and four children, one being my father, lost the farm to creditors and committed suicide. My father at age twelve quit school to help his mother support his three younger siblings.

I grew up in a tenant house on a farm where my father, who never finished grade school, was a share cropper. The supporting timbers were placed on rocks leaving openings for the winds of winter to wind their way through cracks in the floor to keep the house air-conditioned. Because education was secondary to farm work, I failed high school and, by way of the G.I. Bill[5] later, corrected my lack of learning.

At the early age of fifteen I slept in the tobacco barn between bales of hay with a twelve gauge shotgun at my shoulder, awaiting any intruder coming to steal the tobacco which produced much of the family income for the year. At age seventeen I traded that shotgun for an M-1 rifle which I carried onto the beach in combat on Okinawa at age eighteen.

Like many others of my generation, my future was determined more by circumstance than by design. Life became a process of walking through doors as they opened and discovering pathways incidental to conditions dictated by the realities of history.

I was fifteen years old carrying a bucket of milk from the barn to the milk house when the farm owner approached and said, “the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” Well, I thought to myself, at least that’s another country. I didn’t have the slightest idea where Pearl Harbor was or the implications of that act of war.

So when the attack on Pearl Harbor came, we were already chastened by lives of hardships from which the challenges of war lifted our spirit of adventure. A fever of patriotism united the entire country as young and old alike resolved to make whatever sacrifices were required.

Our backs were against the wall as we faced those who would put the world in chains. We were the only power sufficient to carry the keys to unlock those chains. President Franklin Roosevelt, who I had the privilege of meeting, convinced us that “the only thing we had to fear was fear itself.”

We proclaimed with feeling the prospects of success by singing songs such as “When the lights go on again all over the world.” That goal was our inspiration.

During the early to middle 1940s some 16 million men entered the military service. They put their personal lives on hold and kissed their sweethearts goodbye. Resolute but worried parents, brothers, and sisters lingered over train station goodbyes. For most new draftees and volunteers the separation lasted far longer than suggested by the popular song of the time that began “Goodbye dear I’ll be back in a year.”[6] Before it was over, the year had extended to two, three and four years with many serving two or three years abroad.

The spirit of the day was “we will win”. Each one of us, believing in ourselves, our country, freedom, and in the organizations of which we were a part, were willing to accept whatever responsibility, and hard work was necessary. It was tough but it was also exciting, stimulating and uplifting. Pride prevailed in all of us.

Uncle Sam considered me too young for the draft at age seventeen. But catching the fever of patriotism, I joined the Marines. Like most young men of the time, I preferred to live long, but I was willing to die for my country.

We were emboldened by the audacity of the Japanese. So that rather than thinking negatively about the challenge ahead, we took it as an inspiring responsibility which called forth our best so that it became an exciting adventure.

We met people we never dreamed of meeting, learned things we would not have learned anywhere else. A positive spirit prevailed irrespective of the statistics which pervaded the headlines for all to see. On one raid over Germany, of 376 planes, sixty were shot down leaving six hundred empty bunks in England that night. An average of 220 deaths per day was recorded in all of World War Two.

The news of Marines dying by the thousands as they landed on Pacific islands braced me for the demanding discipline that I would need to endure. They sought to take away our civilian identity and make us function automatically in response to any command.

The recruiting sergeant asked whether we had any scars, birthmarks, or other unusual features. When asked why such a question was necessary, the Sargent replied “So they can identify you on some Pacific beach after the Japs blast off your dog tags.” That was our introduction to the stark realism that not only characterized the Marine Corps but to our personal determination to respond to the challenge.

The strength of the army was in its huge size and power. It made our successes as a nation possible. The Navy carried us to the ends of the earth and for the Marines it was our mode of transportation. Each in its own way, including the Army Air Corps, played its role in leading the world out of darkness.

The spirit of every young man was expressed by an unknown author who stated: “When we discover values in life worth dying for, we likely have found purposes worth living for”, and from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it”.[7] These were the sentiments which drove us to our ultimate successes.

We celebrated some of the best days of our country’s history and our lives. When the lights did come back on the reality of our success gave us the confidence to build the nation to its maximum capacity and that prevailed for the next fifty years when those who fought in the war ran the country and it has never been more successful economically, socially, and politically. We did it because we believed deeply in what we fought to preserve.

As a country boy growing up in a very rural setting, I never dreamed of going to college. Learning was so far down my list of priorities that I literally slept through high school and was, four years afterwards, rejected by a liberal arts college of which I later became the Chief Financial Officer and was invited to be its president twice.

But following my four years of maturing in the Marine Corps and thanks to the G.I. Bill, I entered Campbellsville Junior College and was housed in a wooden army barracks with fifteen other veterans on probation. It burned down before the year was over, taking with it everything we had accumulated.

I married when I was a freshman, taught in college before completing my undergraduate degree and had six children before finishing Graduate School.

In many ways, the transition from a rural farm orientation and the circumstances of history expanded my introduction to new places, new faces, broader knowledge and tougher challenges. My opportunities socially, physically, and intellectually were greatly extended.

Even today as the numbers of the Greatest Generation are diminished to less than 1 million, there is no greater satisfaction to veterans of that conflict than that we rose when the nation called us to stand and we still stand strong for our country, believing that our sons and grandsons would do the same under similar circumstances.

And, as our lives play out, we acknowledge those activities which highlight our proudest days.

Sherwin Helms’s words are most appropriate as the remaining await their final destiny. “The last plaintive bugle note drifts off across the valley with a soul astride”. Though we are reduced to a few, we remain proud as we reflect upon who we are and what we did. Irrespective of our service branch, we salute each other for having laid our lives on the line in order to bring to fruition, the greatest military success in history.

At my age, I spend more and more time giving eulogies. Most of my contemporaries from the Marine Corps, from college and from my profession are deceased – some of them long ago. As I attend these funerals I remember that Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t go to theirs, they won’t come to yours”. So I’m expecting a large turnout.

I conclude with words from [Alfred Lord] Tennyson’s “Ulysses” as he spoke to his compatriots during his waning days to bolster their resolve, to encourage their persistence, and to reinforce his own desire to stay engaged.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in Use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! ……………
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
…………………………Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a new world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And because the world steps aside to let those pass who know where they are going, let me get out of your way so that you may receive your degrees and continue your life’s journey emboldened and elevated to a new level of competence and confidence, wearing with pride, a degree from Campbellsville University.

[1] The author of this poem is unknown. It is one of those kind of texts which has been around for generations and adapted to suit any situation or personal whim. The poem may have been first published in 1954 under the title “He Understood” in the “Eveleigh News”, a news sheet of the Eveleigh Loco Chop Committee. Andrew Dow, ed., 2006. Dow’s Dictionary of Railway Quotations (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 89 (289.2), http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.library.acaweb.org/ehost/detail/detail?sid=157789e8-de04-431e-975b 2f7e73eb1dd2%40sessionmgr4009&vid=0&hid=4114&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=nlebk&AN=309434 [accessed April 5, 2016]. The Eveleigh Loco Chop Committee was an Australian railroad union in New South Wales. The Eveleigh Loco Chop Shop was a blacksmithing workshop located in a sixty-acre complex in Sydney, Australia. This shop and many others in the complex serviced the rail fleet as well as the locomotive manufacturing operations of New South Wales. Eveleigh was significant in the history of Australian unionism, beginning in 1892. For more information on the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, visit Eveleigh Stories website at http://eveleighstories.com.au/about [accessed April 5, 2016].

[2] For more information on the “Spirit of ‘45”, go to the website, http://spiritof45.org/home0.aspx. [Accessed April 5, 2016]. Dr. Heilman is prominent in the organization’s leadership and activities.

[3] This song was first sung in 1943, the second year of the United States involvement in World War Two. It was first performed by Vaughn Monroe and his orchestra, and became number one on the charts. The lyrics—

“When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “hello to love”

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the ships will sail again all over the world
Then we’ll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
When the lights go on again all over the world

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the ships will sail again all over the world
Then we’ll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
When the lights go on again all over the world”

were inspired heavily by the blackout imposed on Londoners during the Blitz in which Germany bombed British cities, especially London, between September 1940 and May 1941. The blackouts continued after the bombing raids ceased until the end of the war in 1945. Songs like this were intended to help people endure the hell of war by giving them a sense of hope and calm.

[4] The battle of Okinawa was fought between April 1 and June 22, 1945. Located in the Ryukyu Islands south of the Japanese mainland, the battle claimed very high casualties. The American forces had 49,151 (12,520 killed) and the Japanese forces, 117,472 (112,071 killed). Okinawa was the last battle before the intended invasion of the Japanese mainland. It gave the Allies prime location for staging troops, for anchoring their naval fleets, and for constructing airfields to launch bombing raids over Japan.

[5] The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the G.I. Bill) was a law that offered many benefits to assist military servicemen, returning from World War Two to readjust to civilian life. (World War Two veterans were often referred to as G.I.s, which stood for Government Issue.) A returning veteran was eligible for low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business, cash payments for tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college or university, or vocational school, and one year’s unemployment compensation if he or she was on active duty for 120 days and had not been dishonorably discharged. The G.I. Bill is credited for laying the foundation for the economic prosperity that followed soon after the war.

[6] “Goodbye Dear, I’ll be back in a year”, written by Mack Kay, was made popular by Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights in 1941. It was first on US Billboard for two weeks.

Goodbye Dear, I’ll be back in a year
‘Cause I’m in the army now
They took my number out of the hat
And there’s nothing a guy can do about that

But when I get back, I’ll be all tanned and brown
And we’ll buy that cottage just outside of town
So, goodbye Dear, I’ll be back in a year
Don’t forget that I love you

(Orchestral Interlude)

Goodbye Dear, I’ll be back in a year
‘Cause I’m in the army now
Don’t I look handsome dressed up like this
Stop your cryin’ and give your soldier a kiss

They may send me out to the old Philippines
But, Sweetheart, you’ll still be the girl of my dreams
So, goodbye Dear, I’ll be back in a year
Don’t forget that I love you”

[7] John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, edited by Justin Kaplan, 16th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1992), 72. The actual quote can be found in Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. and ed. Richard Winn Livingstone and Richard Crawley (London, New York, et al: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1943), 113.

Bruce Heilman is chancellor emeritus at the University of Richmond, Virginia. He is an alumnus of Campbellsville University when it was a junior college. He held many academic administrative positions, including president of both Meredith College, Raleigh, North Carolina, and the University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia. His doctorate is from Peabody College, Nashville, Tennessee, which is now part of Vanderbilt University.

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