Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thanks to the Greatest Generation

As a child in the Fifties, I was fascinated with all things World War II—the great battles, the inspiring leaders, the movies and documentaries, the books and memorabilia—and I have maintained that interest to this day. I was mesmerized by the stories told by the victorious vets who had come home to start families, to hold civilian jobs, to teach Sunday School and coach Little League baseball teams. They were giants to me then, as much for their heroism as for their evident pride of service and their selfless humility.

They are still giants to me.

Like so many other Americans, my family had a history of service and sacrifice during the war. My uncle, an Army NCO, was wounded at Schofield Barracks on the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and its Honolulu environs, giving the nation a Gillis casualty in virtually the opening minutes of World War II. Another uncle was a member of an Air Corps bomber crew who flew dozens of risky missions out of England. My cousin was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge as a member of the Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division. Another cousin died as a Navy pilot in a carrier accident during the Battle of Tarawa. My own father’s forward Air Corps base was bombed during the Aleutian Islands campaign.

My mother worked for the Atlanta office of Western Union during the war years. There were thousands upon thousands of cables sent, many of which bore the dreaded news that a loved one was wounded or missing or killed in action. In fact, my aunt was notified of her pilot husband’s death via a Western Union telegram in what began an unspeakably hard day for her.

My parents’ generation survived the Great Depression and then went on to win World War II. They saved the world from totalitarianism. They faced the veteran armies and navies of the Axis, fought it out in hedgerows and across beaches, in bone-chilling cold and mind-numbing heat. They fought and they won, and in the process freed millions of innocents caught in the slipstream of unprecedented global catastrophe, left tens of thousands of American dead in cemeteries across the Atlantic and Pacific, and then finally packed up their gear and came home.

Sixty years later, they are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. There will soon come a time when none will be left. Their legacy will survive, a legacy as the Greatest Generation, but their physical presence will disappear. The difference they have made is not just profound, but astonishing. Is there an equal in American history? In world history?

As we approach this Memorial Day, I salute the victors—the members of the armed forces who won it on the ground, in the air, and on the seas; the women and men who supported the war effort back home; the military and political leaders whose wisdom and strength and skill saw the nation through.

You are indeed the Greatest Generation. Thank you and God bless you, and may you never be forgotten.

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