In March 1941, the United States was not at war — and didn’t want to be. Britain and her Commonwealth allies were fighting for the cause of the free world against Italy and Nazi Germany.
All of 19 years old, within weeks of the date he died 80 years later, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was an officer on HMS Valiant when the Royal Navy intercepted and devastated an Italian squadron at the Battle of Cape Matapan.
The young officer was mentioned in dispatches for his action in the celebrated battle. There was much fighting and dying to occur later, but Cape Matapan severely curtailed German and Italian efforts to control the Mediterranean Sea.
Famous as the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, the prince’s death is a vivid reminder that passing from the scene are heroes of the great generation of young men and women — his future wife also served in uniform in the course of the war — who defeated one of the most monstrous tyrannies in history.
Their actions, and for many their ultimate sacrifices, ended the bid for world supremacy of a regime that Winston Churchill said was “never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
And on the night when the young Philip targeted his battleship’s searchlights on the Italian battle fleet, America was a bystander.
That happy isolation was not to continue.
One hopes that every year Americans remember the service and sacrifices of those who fought and died in World War II, as well in this country’s other conflicts around the globe. But 80 years after 1941, as Philip’s death reminds us, offers us a chance to remember the many significant anniversaries on the road toward total war.
Not all Americans were asleep to the coming dangers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. George C. Marshall led the bipartisan effort to build up the pitifully small U.S. armed services.
In central Louisiana, in the Alexandria area, the future stars of World War II in American uniform participated in the large peacetime exercises 80 years ago that were intended to get the Army ready.
The Louisiana Maneuvers were a critical milestone toward America’s participation and ultimate leadership in the battle against Germany, Japan and Italy.
The “date which will live in infamy,” when Japanese airplanes devastated Pearl Harbor, will come on Dec. 7. It is another point 80 years on when this nation has a chance to recognize those still with us, even if heroes like Prince Philip have already entered into rest.