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WASHINGTON (Sept. 9, 2009)
International historians discuss the Trident Intercontinental Ballistic Missile at the Cold War Gallery of the U.S. Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard.
Historians from the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Canada are gathered for the biennial Naval History Symposium at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Commentary by Staff Sgt. Austin M. May
100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
9/4/2009 – ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (AFNS) — As someone in the business of telling the news, I tend to take for granted the multitude of means we have available to get the word out. Between the Internet, 24-hour news networks, radio and the newspaper, a person can pick how and when they want their news and usually get all the top stories of the moment in the time it takes to drink a cup of morning coffee.
Seventy years ago, however, it was a different story. Breaking news was delivered either by newspaper or the radio, and on this day here in this country, the news was not good.
On the morning of Sept. 3, 1939, the airwaves carried the message, somberly read by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, that England and France were officially at war with Germany.
The broadcast told of Hitler ignoring a demand to withdraw from Poland, which he had invaded two days earlier, and made reference to the obligation of the English to go to the aid of Poland. The voice which carried the message did so with such a sense of remorseful dignity that one can almost feel the pain of Prime Minister Chamberlain as he tells the people of the failure of peace.
It gives me an eerie sense of wonder to think that in the town where my wife and I now live, 70 years ago today families huddled around a radio hearing the words and wondering what they really meant. I can see their faces, wrought with fear, as parents tried to explain to their children what unimaginable hardships were headed their way.
It’s easy to imagine the buzz in the small villages as the word spread to those who hadn’t heard it firsthand. I can picture the men in the local pub in my village talking it out over a pint, perhaps telling stories of the previous war with Germany. I can see in my mind the young men busting with bravado, ready to take up arms and kick Hitler’s Third Reich back to Germany and protect their homeland. I can imagine the wives, daughters, sisters and girlfriends nervously standing by their men, ready to support them however they could as they prepared for war.
I can easily picture all this because I’ve seen it in history books, I’ve walked the streets where it happened and to a degree, I’ve lived it.
Many of us, in a sense, know the feeling. I remember sitting in a small dayroom in Saudi Arabia in 2003 as my buddies and I watched President George W. Bush inform the nation, and the world, of Saddam Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. We watched intently, hanging on every word and bracing for the news that we were headed to war with a country for the second time.
Relatively speaking, we had it good. We could jump on the computer and watch replays of the reports. We could chat with people from around the world to find out what they thought and share our own opinions. We could pick up the phone and in seconds be connected to our loved ones and just talk about it.
But in 1939, there was no instant radio replay. The prime minister’s words could only reverberate in the ears of those who heard them and fade as a million other thoughts swirled through anxious minds. Neighbors could plan, speculate and console each other, but the world then was a bigger, and suddenly scarier place.
That is a feeling I don’t, and can’t, know. And because I don’t know it, I have to respect it.
The weather in England on Sept. 3, 2009, to me, represents what I imagine the country felt this day 70 years ago. Dark clouds hang over the countryside, and a wicked wind spreads a chill everywhere it touches.
It’s as if the island itself is remembering this day and what it represents in the history of the United Kingdom.
Photo: Outbreak 1939
Why does the National Cryptologic Museum exist? Because it has to: There is a statue celebrating military heroism at Iwo Jima, but no memorial to the brilliant minds that cracked Japanese codes and turned around the Pacific war at Midway Island.
Every school child learns how the beaches of Normandy were stormed, but few knowledgeable adults know about the intelligence professionals who cracked Hitler’s Enigma cipher and saved millions of lives. Without this unique museum the nation and the world might never know what it truly takes to defend freedom.
The National Cryptologic Museum is no Disneyland. It’s the real stories as told by the intelligence professionals who really know. It’s the stories of those who served in silence but saved the world, many times over.
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