Dennis Persica: War dwarfed personal issues back home

A column I wrote for Memorial Day last month about the time that my dad spent at the Delta shipyard during World War II brought a good response. I received several emails from people whose fathers had worked in defense industries.

I could sense the pride in their letters. In some cases, there seemed to be a sense of relief that someone had validated the importance of their fathers’ service on the home front. (The emails were exclusively about fathers, but we also know the important role that women played in defense plants.)

There were men with conditions that made them ineligible for the draft, maybe partial deafness or poor vision, so they went to work in defense industries. One was a man from Golden Meadow who was hired as a shipyard guard in New Orleans because he was considered a good shot with a rifle.

As Dan Borné put it, these people “fought the war with a hard hat instead of a helmet.”

Borné is the president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, which has released a five-minute video called “Heroes on the Homefront” to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which is Friday.

In the video, Borné points out how fuel, synthetic rubber and aluminum oxide produced in Louisiana all were critical to the war effort. Borné’s own father worked at a synthetic rubber plant in Baton Rouge.

Without doubt, Louisiana’s best-known contribution to the war is the landing craft built by Higgins Industries in Michoud. It was crucial to the D-Day landings on Normandy.

There is an eerie line in an editorial that ran in The New York Times on June 7, 1944, the day after the invasion: “We have come to the hour for which we were born.”

With that sentence, The Times elevated the war effort to something of cosmic, even religious, importance, as if it were the greatest battle between good and evil since Lucifer rebelled. Any individual’s personal concerns were secondary to it.

Of the soldiers taking part in the invasion, the editorial says, “in this moment of pure light that burns away all trivial issues, they see the war aims with perfect clearness, and so do we.”

In “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart’s character expressed it in plainer English as he untangled the love triangle ensnaring him, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

People still had their own personal matters to deal with during the war, of course. People still got sick. Babies were born; old people died. Hearts were still broken.

Soldiers missed loved ones back home; people at home worried about spouses, lovers, siblings or children in battle. For those not in the military, there remained the general everyday concern of making a living in a world that hadn’t fully recovered from the Great Depression.

But no matter what was going on in their own lives, everyone was a cog in the bigger machinery that was fighting the monumental battle against the demonic evil that had overtaken Europe.

We can only guess how people will think of this war in a hundred years. Will its importance loom as large then as it does now?

That’s a question we can’t answer today. But as we remember that great battle while some who fought in it are still alive, we can also take pride in the fact that Louisiana’s heroes — whether in uniform or on the home front — played their part.

Dennis Persica’s email is dpersica @theadvocate.com.

Editor’s note: This column was changed on June 6, 2014 to indicate that while a Louisiana plant produced aluminum oxide, which is used in producing aluminum, the metal itself was not manufactured in the state at that time.