BRUNSWICK, Maine — After taking up arms as teenagers during World War II to help defeat Adolf Hitler’s Germany and the Japanese empire that launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, three Maine men who are now in their 90s dedicated their lives to peace.
But what they see now in Washington, D.C., conjures ominous memories of their youth and threatens to dash their hopes that they will leave a more peaceful world than the one they entered.
War made them soldiers for a short time but peace activists for a lifetime.
A more militaristic “America First” tone from President Donald Trump combined with backlash against immigrants and people based on religion and ethnicity have summoned memories of dark times for them as they mark the anniversaries this week of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
‘I see Mussolini’
Herschel Sternlieb’s first memory is of the Connecticut farm where he grew up, in a town so small there were no locks on the doors or firearms mounted on walls.
Sternlieb, 91, of Brunswick remembers the day, as a young boy, when he heard then-German Chancellor Adolf Hitler speak on the family’s Philco radio.
His grandfather — “a peaceful guy,” Sternlieb said — “paced back and forth in front of the radio screaming in Yiddish, ‘Mamzer!’” or “bastard!” in English.
Today, Sternlieb, a member of the activist group Veterans for Peace, said when he looks at Trump, “I see Mussolini. Have you ever noticed that? When he sticks his jaw out, he’s the spitting image of Mussolini.”
“We have a president who reminds me of the German chancellor,” said Stanley Lofchie, who turns 93 on Friday.
Lofchie, also a member of Veterans for Peace, served in the U.S. Army during the Battle of the Bulge and until the end of World War II.
“Mr. Trump is a classic fascist: hideous and unending racism, withholding all possible benefits from the poorest people, devoting himself entirely to the benefit of the top 1 percent and degrading the highest office in the land to the level of the most ordinary burglar,” Lofchie said. “He’s Hitler, or Mussolini, but he lacks the wisdom or the stagecraft.”
Raised in a “trade union household,” Lofchie was politically active by age 15, and “learned a lot about what was fair and not fair,” he said Tuesday. He was drafted four months after his 18th birthday and served in Europe from Dec. 7, 1943, to April 6, 1946.
Shortly after returning from the war, he first joined the American Veterans Committee, a “socialistic, idealistic” group and later, Veterans for Peace.
His goal, he said, is “working for a just and peaceful society. Just in terms of economic, just in terms of race, just in terms of sex, just in terms of fair play.”
That’s not the America he sees today, Lofchie said.
“All I can say is that the present state of the American nation makes me very anxious indeed. It really seems to be on the precipice of going down a steep path that it may not be able to recover from,” he said.
‘It scares me’
Bob Dale, 93, of Brunswick, also a member of Veterans for Peace, was a Navy fighter pilot who was still in California when the war ended.
He landed aboard a ship in the Pacific in 1945 and saw no combat, although he flew with an atomic bomb aboard and “saw Tokyo and Manila in ruins.”
“It scares me,” he said of the current political climate in the United States. “I feel like the future is grim for my children. Trump and his followers scare me.”
But Sternlieb remembers the years leading up to the war and the “very strong ‘America First’ sentiment.’”
“That sounds familiar,” said his wife, Selma Sternlieb, 82, also a member of Veterans for Peace.
Herschel Sternlieb watched older cousins and friends receive draft notices, and remembers one friend, “a little older than I was, [went to war] and within six months he was dead, at Anzio Beach in Italy … my older buddies were infantrymen. They were about to be cannon fodder for the U.S. invasion of Japan.”
Sternlieb was drafted in 1945 and served in the Philippines in 1946, when, he said, “I got out as fast as I could.”
Remembering the actions of Hitler and Mussolini leading up to the war, Sternlieb said of the current situation in the United States: “We’re probably at fascism already. What is fascism? Control of the government by big business and the military. That’s what it is, and it’s here.”
But he noted “one big difference between then and now: The people who were in charge of the country — Roosevelt’s entourage — they were basically honest people and not in it for themselves. … Trump’s assault on common decency is beyond comprehension. How do you separate children from parents. You don’t do those things. You’re supposed to be good Christians, good Jews …”
Where is there hope?
Lofchie sees “many” decent people in American politics who could turn the tide, but said whether any can be elected president is “very, very unclear.”
“Other countries are operating at a much higher moral plane and represent the kind of leadership the world needs, but it’s hard for me to imagine that would all come about [in the U.S.],” Lofchie said.
But Sternlieb sees only one hope for the country in the face of the fascism he sees spreading today: First, “get rid of our leaders. All of them have to go.”
Then, turn to the Vatican:
“Pope Francis is the only human on Earth who has that vast an audience, and who is speaking in terms of reconciliation and love,” he said. “There’s nobody in the United States. Nobody in Europe. Nobody in Russia.”
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