No, I don't wish for anything like World War II to befall America. But I can understand why our parents and grandparents recall those years with feelings much deeper than nostalgia. In an age when we waste so much energy yelling at each other over politics and trivia, I envy those who can remember an America united in the dangerous pursuit of something really important.

It was a gorgeous spring day in the foothills of the German Alps, made even sweeter by the reports that had raced up and down the Allied lines for days. Things were winding down. The Germans were about to surrender.


The two young soldiers decided to hike up a hill near their camp. They had fought their way across France and into Germany with the 65th Signal Battalion, and it had begun to hit them how lucky they were. They had survived. Soon they'd be heading home.


The way I heard it from my father-in-law years later, the two soldiers came upon a lush Alpine meadow - as pretty as a picturebook, with patches of snow still glistening in the grass - and stopped to rest. They lay down on the grass, the May sun warming their faces, and fell asleep.


They awoke to the sight of two German soldiers looking down on them. Suddenly they didn't feel so lucky.


But the Germans started talking, and the soldiers, one of whom had grown up hearing German in Lancaster, Pa., soon determined that they weren't prisoners. It was the two German soldiers who wanted to surrender to them.


It was spring and the war was over. After talking about it awhile, the Americans decided nothing would be gained by taking the German soldiers to a prison camp. Better to just go home, they said.


One of the Germans asked the Americans if they knew anything about his home in a nearby village. The Americans looked down at their feet and mumbled. They had been through that village a couple of weeks before, and it was a mess.


The GIs headed back down the hill, pausing to look back at the German soldiers - just boys, really, though the Americans weren't that much older. It's a memory that still touches the heart all these years later.


"We all looked at each other from a slight distance and raised our hands," he says. "And that was it."


***


Sixty-five years ago, the ordnance officer of the U.S.S. Antietam looked out at the Pacific Ocean. He was steaming toward Japan, and the war he'd been trying for years to get to.


Because he had a business degree when he enlisted, the ensign was first sent not to war, but to Washington to push papers around in the Navy Department.


The work wasn't especially exciting, but Washington was a wartime boomtown. It was overflowing with young men in uniform, and young women doing their part to support the war effort. That's where the young officer met my mother. She wrote letters to him throughout the war, as she did with other men serving overseas. Just the other day I found those letters in a neatly tied bundle in their attic.


In civilian life, the officer had been in the paper business back in West Springfield, Mass., and knew next to nothing about ship-building. But the Navy sent him to Philadelphia anyway, to help oversee the building of the Antietam, an Essex-class aircraft carrier.


Once commissioned, the Antietam was to be his ticket to the war. But first there was the shakedown cruise, then more outfitting and finally, on May 19 - just days after the two GIs took their victory nap in the Alpine meadow - the Antietam headed to the front where war was still raging.


Three days west of Pearl Harbor, they got the good word: The Japanese had surrendered. Their mission was changed from support for an invasion to support for an occupation.


***


War is the story of individual heroism and sacrifice, but it is also moved by big factors, one of which was evident in my father's story. By 1945, Hitler's mighty factories had been reduced to rubble. Japanese armament factories had been destroyed, its merchant fleet was no longer functional and its remaining warships had run out of fuel. At that moment, a brand new aircraft carrier, fully stocked with airplanes, bombs, sailors and pilots, was steaming its way to the front.


What President Roosevelt had dubbed "the arsenal of democracy" had turned the tide.


***


My family has other stories of the war now receding from living memory. One of my uncles, a fighter pilot in Europe, used to talk about flying through the legs of the Eiffel Tower after the liberation of Paris.


There's another uncle I never met. His plane was shot down somewhere in the Balkans. His remains were never found.


Also lost in war was a man who almost became my uncle. My aunt's fiance never made it to the altar. She never married, and never really recovered.


***


Looking through some old photos, I found a small, worn, leather folder with our family's war ration stamps inside. It reminded me how, in that war, everyone had sacrificed. Everyone had relatives and friends in uniform, and most everyone know someone who had been killed.


And everyone did their part. I've read that much of the stuff collected on the home front during the World War II - balls of twine, rubber bands, newspapers and tin foil - were never recycled into planes and bullets and tires for jeeps. That wasn't the point. Roosevelt mostly wanted to give people the opportunity to feel they had a contribution to make to the war effort.


How different it is today. American soldiers put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan, but most of us don't know any of those volunteer warriors personally. Their deaths touch other families, not ours. We sit comfortably at home and complain about politicians and taxes.


No, I don't wish for anything like World War II to befall America. But I can understand why our parents and grandparents recall those years with feelings much deeper than nostalgia. In an age when we waste so much energy yelling at each other over politics and trivia, I envy those who can remember an America united in the dangerous pursuit of something really important.


Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.