Today marks the 19th anniversary of the terrifying terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and I’ve never been able to think of that day without also remembering the dedication of South Dakota’s World War II Memorial that took place in Pierre just a few days later.
In an audacious act of treachery, 19 terrorists took control of four jetliners on Tuesday, the day that became “9/11,’’ a set of numbers that needs no further explanation. They terrorists crashed two of the airplanes into the World Trade Center’s towers in New York City. They crashed another into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. But for the fact that passengers took over the fourth plane and crashed it into a field in Pennsylvania, it well could have hit the U.S. Capitol or the White House. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks.
Children who were born at the time of 9/11 have gone from infant to almost-adult. They’re high school graduates, ready for college, the service or the work force. They’ve grown up in the wake of 9/11, and presumably they know instantly at least the basic of what the numbers mean and what happened that day 19 years ago.
Someday, I suppose, 9/11 will become another bit of history remembered only vaguely by a new generation of Americans, the way some people now remember so little of World War II history that they ask why an American cemetery rests on French soil near Normandy. I hope that isn’t so, but I fear it could someday happen.
Maybe that fear is part of the reason I connect 9/11 with the World War II ceremony that came the weekend after the terrorists carried out their deadly plan. I remember how people – as many as 25,000 people including upwards of 5,000 World War II veterans – came to the capital city for the dedication. While the rest of the country reeled in horror, these people journeyed to Pierre to remember a generation that had faced the shock of the Pearl Harbor attack and that had responded by winning a world war. The actions and sacrifices of the veterans were remembered during the Memorial dedication, but so were the sacrifices of folks back home who planted victory gardens and used ration coupons and went without and bought war bonds and united in a common cause.
I remember the old veterans who came from all over the country for the dedication in their home state. They laughed and shed tears and saluted every flag they saw and embraced each other without embarrassment. They paused to listen as an outdoor speaker system played Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,’’ and when they were interviewed, they put out their arms, palms forward, as if to ward off the notion that they had done anything heroic. They went, they fought, they came home, and if the state wanted to honor that, well, they seemed to say, honor instead those who weren’t able to make it back, because all I did was what anyone would have done, and I was far luckier than many others who did the same thing.
In a time before social media, they didn’t need to post their heroic deeds, and they certainly didn’t try to tear down anyone else who had shared the experience.
Because I worked for a daily newspaper, I had the privilege of interviewing several of the veterans who attended the World War II memorial dedication that day in Pierre. Almost all of the men and women I interviewed talked of the terrorist attacks in the context of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath.
“It’s so wonderful that this memorial has been finished. It means a lot to a lot of people,’’ one veteran told me. “But the death and suffering so many people experienced this past week can’t ever be far from your mind. In a way, the connection between (this) ceremony and that tragedy (9/11) almost heightens our feelings about both.’’
Another vet said the memorial could remind young people what the nation can accomplish if everyone works together. “When the old veterans gather here, they remember maybe the most intense time in their lives. Maybe young people will look at this and see how strong this country can be. It’s important that they know that.’’
We had that moment on 9/11 when members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, gathered on the Capitol steps for a moment of silence, spontaneously sang “God Bless America.’’ On this anniversary, I hope we can remember how we did that.