My View: Our Greatest Generation
As the events of World War II are retold on the 75th anniversary this year, we must not forget to honor the Americans who participated in them.
The World War II generation forged their values during the Great Depression, when life was uncertain. Then they went off to war with no realistic hope of achieving a better life or even of surviving the ordeal. Their aim was not only to protect America during a time of crisis, but also to rid the world of fascism "once and for all." Thus, theirs was a crusade on behalf of free people everywhere. They succeeded in their aims.
From 1941 to 1945, they transformed the isolationist United States, with its third-rate military, into the most powerful nation in history.
When the war was at last at an end, and the "good guys" had won, these people were not finished. They went on to create the strongest economy on Earth and, while they were at it, rebuilt nations that had suffered the most during the conflict. Every American since has enjoyed the fruits of their success.
That was then. Today, even while many of the greatest remain with us, their contributions have largely been forgotten, their lessons ignored, their solid values a target of ridicule. Their wonderful music is laughed at, their remarkable valor now a subject only for old movies and books.
When I was a boy in the late 1940s and early '50s, everything related to World War II. Such and such event occurred before "the war," so and so were married after "the war."
Everyone around me had participated in it in some way. All of my friends' parents or their spouses were veterans. When we played army, as all of the boys did, we were outfitted with authentic surplus G.I. gear. Our Boy Scout campouts resembled an army bivouac complete with heavy olive drab-colored, oil-treated canvas pup tents with "U.S." stenciled on their sloping sides.
Although the aura of World War II surrounded us, no one who had been there ever spoke of it. Not even to one another, unless they happened to have served in the same unit.
The combat vets didn't want to call attention to themselves as they (correctly) felt their families couldn't possibly understand the horror they'd experienced. As a result, most people never heard their compelling stories.
This began to change about the time of the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. The vets realized that their stories might well die with them.
In 1995, when the Smithsonian displayed the refurbished nose of the Enola Gay along with a placard apologizing for America's ending the war with the use of a nuclear weapon, all hell broke loose. Outraged veterans vowed to "set the record straight" by at last relating their experiences.
Coincidentally, at this time author Tom Brokaw gave a name to the WWII generation: "The Greatest," and it finally became acceptable for vets to talk openly of their service. Many of them did, providing much-appreciated, first-hand accounts of battle to historians like me.
Over the ensuing years, I was able to hear the stories of heroes such as Navy Ensign John Lorenz (Navy Cross, Battle of Midway), Air Force Lt. Rex Barber (downed the aircraft carrying Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto), Stars and Stripes Capt. Bill McNamara (awarded the French Croix de Guerre for being the first American to enter Paris), Air Force Capt. Del Harris (P-47 pilot and POW who escaped from Stalag Luft III), Capt. Jack Cramer (35 missions in a B-29 over Japan) and many, many more. Their amazing experiences will now be preserved forever.
Sadly, nearly all of these wonderful folks have left us. I have only a handful of World War II pals left, and I treasure each moment I can spend with them.
When even these last few are gone, I'll feel a great sense of loss. Ahead are times with the "next" generation, my own, with lesser tales to tell and with totally different values. Instead of the "we" and "can-do" generation, it will be the "what have you done for me lately" group. I don't relish the prospect.
So long, soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. You'll be missed much more than you know.
Don Bourgeois is a retired Portland lawyer who has long been been interested in WWII and, since retiring, has recorded the stories of WWII veterans throughout the Pacific Northwest.