I laugh at those who say a lone person can not change the world.
True, the complexity of world problems is so great that each of us often feel caught in an immense knot that cannot be loosened. And yet, a simple look at any of our family histories will show several ancestors who opted to unravel the string rather than succumb to the tangle.
In my own family are tales of immigration to avoid starvation, of surviving ocean storms, of breaking furrows across an untamed land that has become the most powerful nation on Earth. These stories are not uncommon in any American family. They simply are all too often forgotten.
That perhaps is the strongest argument for learning history - and I don't mean just the dates and politicians' names listed in textbooks. We must know our past to give us strength for the future.
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Iowan shoe salesman William Underhill is one such example. When World War II broke out, Underhill became a bombardier and a member of the 15th Army Air Corps in southern Italy. He flew an incredible 50 missions.
But he tempted fate one too many times. On Underhill's last mission, his crew was shot down behind enemy lines.
He did not give up. With the help of the Polish underground, he avoided capture. After the war, he became chairman of Iowa State University's speech department.
When lost in a hostile, foreign land, he must have learned something about the importance of communication.
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Somehow, despite many different periods of military service, most of my family always missed war. My brother and I, both Army veterans of the 1980s, didn't go to Gulf War I. During the height of the Vietnam War, a drafted uncle instead sat in Korea. The month the Civil War ended, a great-great-great grandfather was conscripted and spent the next several weeks guarding railroad tracks in eastern Kansas.
I am not disappointed by this lack of heroic, wartime military service. Each of us were, in a sense, a victim of time and perhaps good luck.
Many others were not so fortunate.
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Iowa's famous Sullivan Brothers are one such example. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, all five of the Waterloo natives enlisted on the same day. As two of them previously had served in the Navy, they hit the seven seas together; with a little pleading and cajoling, they were assigned to the same ship, the U.S.S. Juneau.
In November 1942, the Juneau went down in the South Pacific. Four of the brothers died in the initial explosion that sunk the ship. The fifth, despite being wounded the night before, made it onto a raft where he survived for five days before succumbing to the ocean waters.
The Navy's notification to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas F. Sullivan that all five of their sons were missing in action has become legendary. Many now incorrectly believe there is a "Sullivan Act" that prevents brothers from serving on the same ship or in the same unit. Congress never has passed such an act, nor has any president ever signed such an executive order.
But the deaths of those five courageous brothers still reverberates in our collective mythology about war.
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The most heroic act many of our ancestors performed was persisting. Their unrelenting labor and simple acts of kindness along the way allowed families, armies and nations to flourish.
I think here of my great uncle, a simple man who served as a foot soldier in Patton's Third Army while it crossed France in 1944-45. Though involved in firefights, he never was injured. He never single-handedly overran any machine gun nests. He never captured 21 Germans with an unloaded pistol.
When asked about the war, he will say his strongest memories are of the shared camaraderie felt with those in his company. The image that stands out the most for him, though, came after his unit helped break through German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. Upon relieving the besieged Americans, he offered his canteen to a soldier who hadn't had fresh water to drink in two days.
My uncle said he will never forget the look of gratitude in that man's eyes as handing the canteen to him.
That look must have made an impact. Years later, he took my orphaned mother into his home and raised her as if she were his own daughter.
And once, as a child while walking along a cornfield with him to see if we could spot pheasants, I called him "grandfather."
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There are many others who touch lives simply through their kindness and their perseverance.
Iowan Ruth Miller was in nurse's training in 1941. Upon finishing, she joined the Army, and throughout the last year of the war in Europe, served just behind the front lines in France and Germany.
Ames native James Bowman volunteered for the Army Air Corps and went on to become a Tuskegee Airman. His service in the African-American corps of fighter pilots helped break down barriers against minorities in the armed services.
Neither Miller nor Bow-man were heroes in the John Wayne sense of the term. But I suspect many men across America were long thankful of Miller's care and many African-Americans looked up to Bowman and his fellow airmen for challenging prejudice.
They made a difference simply by refusing to give in when the knot appeared as if it could not be untied.
They are our truest heroes.
(originally published March 23, 2003)