As the Axis forces swept across Europe, putting the might of the German military on Britain’s doorstep, then-Princess Elizabeth did what millions of her peers did: She volunteered for service.
At the age of 18 and after sparring over the issue with her parents — very relatable — the future British queen joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army. Trained as a mechanic, she served only a few months before the German surrender in May 1945.
However Americans may feel following Elizabeth’s death on Sept. 8 at age 96, there’s a powerful lesson in her modest but meaningful example of civic duty and responsibility we would all do well to learn.
Those who lived through World War II are unlikely to consider Elizabeth’s time in the ATS as a sacrifice. To them it was a duty. The call came — the blitzkrieg advances on the continent followed by the Luftwaffe’s bombing of the British mainland — and like so many of her contemporaries, she answered.
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That sense of civic responsibility, of a shared national purpose in the face of an existential threat, wasn’t exclusive to the United Kingdom, of course. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans similarly rallied to the cause in droves — volunteering for the military, moving into cities and working in armament factories, and even collecting items such as rubber and scrap metal to aid the war effort.
Everyone pitched in. Everyone did their part. And while the nation still had profound problems — segregation remained the law of the land in many places, to name but one — Americans understood that only through shared sacrifice and collaborative effort would it yet endure.
Elizabeth’s death at age 96 offered another certain reminder that her generation — commonly called “the Greatest Generation” — is quickly dwindling in number. Projections by the Veterans Administration predict only about 176,000 World War II veterans will be living by the end of the year. About 234 die each day.
That means the nation, with each passing day, must rely on history rather than memory and experience to tell the stories of what happened during the war and how the nation responded. It also means there are fewer Americans who lived through those harrowing times and who stepped up to serve in whatever way they could when the country needed it.
The country today bears little resemblance to that which pulled together in the face of the fascist threat 80 years ago. It is deeply divided and skittish. People are angrier and more bitter. It often seems we are held together by the most brittle of threads.
Perhaps we can find some inspiration from a future queen who could have stayed clear of the fray as her parents wanted and her station in life afforded, but who instead threw herself toward it. We might draw similar inspiration from the service members and civilians here who saw the threat facing this country and confronted it with every ounce of strength they could muster.
Together we might rekindle the flame of unity and common purpose and restore a nation that can have healthy disagreements but which remains firmly committed to peace, safety and prosperity for all.