Reflections on the Greatest Generation: Shaping the Future


2013-02-06 by Bill Anderson

Recently, my wife and I had the pleasure of attending the dedication of the US Freedom Pavilion at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

This new addition to the Museum…made possible by the generosity of The Boeing Company and other donors…displays some of the significant flying assets that were at the center of the allied victory during the war.  We’ve been supporters of the Museum for many years, and have had a number of opportunities to participate in a wide range of events there.

While the events are always interesting and informative, the true draw for us is the opportunity to meet surviving members of the Greatest Generation. 

Whether combat vets, Red Cross volunteers, those who labored in the factories, the fields, or organized scrap drives to support the war effort, the chance to talk to them and their families, sharing the common experiences of growing up in the shadow of an entire generation of American patriots, is the true experience of the WWII Museum.

Honoring those who served and continuing to serve the country facing global threats is the challenge. And as we move through tough budgetary choices, will we balance the budget on the backs of those who serve? Credit Image: Bigstock 

This trip to New Orleans was no different…providing hours of opportunity to hear stories of selfless service.

As we stood on the third level observation deck at the Freedom Pavilion, almost close enough to the war planes suspended above the floor to reach out and touch them, we soaked in the details of sacrifice, commitment and a clear sense of purpose.  We spent time with Catherine Stevens, wife of the late Senator Ted Stevens, and Irene Hirano Inouye, wife of the late Senator Daniel Inouye, reminiscing.

We shared stories about the service of both men during World War II and the opportunities I had to work with them while I served in the Pentagon and, of course pondering the future of the USAF in the Pacific.  We met a delightful couple from Metairie, LA, learning from the husband what it was like to serve as a belly gunner in the B-17 as we looked at his aircraft hanging from the ceiling of the Museum.  We experienced flying the B-25 Mitchell bomber through the eyes of an Airman who commanded that aircraft in the Pacific theater.

We learned that some of the special guests at the event walked on four legs…getting a briefing from a retired Air Force officer, now an octogenarian, who has dedicated the autumn of his life to training service dogs that are presented free of charge to our wounded warrior heroes returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  An illustration that an Airman’s commitment to “Service Before Self” survives long after he hangs up the uniform for the last time.

Finally, we spent time with two members of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, who had to fight discrimination at home to earn the right to fight for their country over the skies of Europe.

Each story is unique…each tale of sacrifice in its own way amazing…no matter how large or how small.

Organizations like the National World War II Museum are doing great work in preserving as many of these important life experiences as they can.

But, sadly, many of these important tales go untold as we lose more and more members of the Greatest Generation every day. 

It’s really an obligation for all of us to listen carefully to the tales of these aging patriots…reflect on the lessons afforded to us…and dutifully document what we hear.

Millions of Americans…offspring of the Greatest Generation…have their own, very personal, connection to World War II and to those who served.

For me, my connection is through my father. 

My earliest recollections are as a very young boy standing next to my dad…at the time the chaplain for his local American Legion Post…at graveside Memorial Day remembrance ceremonies.  I have strong recollections of spending time with a family friend…severely disabled from wounds received during the push from Normandy to Germany.  His day-to-day struggles coping with his disability were evident…but his love of country and pride in his service never waivered.  I also remember the evenings my father joined his fellow Legionnaires on the Visitation Committee…responsible for performing memorial services for departed comrades.

But, I never fully absorbed how moving that ceremony was until I witnessed it last…this time performed for my dad…as his Legion buddies formally transferred him to “Post Everlasting”.

And like many of the Greatest Generation, my father rarely spoke about his service during World War II. 

If it weren’t for our daughter’s 10th grade social studies assignment years ago…to interview a World War II vet…some of my dad’s experiences would have been lost forever.

My dad was already exhibiting significant effects of dementia…but his recounting of his time in the service was crystal clear.  We learned that he and two of his childhood friends decided to go to the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Chicago in the early morning hours of December 8, 1941 to enlist in the military.

President Roosevelt had yet to declare war…but these three young men knew it was their duty to serve.

I have often likened their reaction to the many young Americans who immediately after September 11, 2001 put their lives on hold to join the military to fight the Global War on Terror. 

We heard about what it was like to do convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic.  We listened as my father recounted the story of how the Bogue (CVE-9) Hunter/Killer Group conducted a 27 hour search for U-Boat 172…successfully engaging the target and sending the enemy craft to the bottom.  And, we got a glimpse of the lighter side of his experience as well…spending Christmas 1943 on shore leave in New York City, celebrating at the Hotel Piccadilly, Times Square, New York City.

So, with all the issues we face as a country today, why am I wasting print reminiscing over times so far in the rearview mirror?

Well, many have drawn comparisons between the challenges of the Great Depression/World War II and today. 

With good reason…similarities abound.

Financial turmoil, unemployment, serious concerns about immigration, and threats from abroad are common to both eras.  And one could conclude that those similarities would manifest themselves into the same spirit of selflessness and common purpose we saw generations ago.

Yet for some reason that spirit seems to be eluding us. 

And one should certainly wonder why.  There are differences…mainly in the length and depth of our challenges…which may hold the answer.

Certainly, we are not experiencing lines around the block for people to get a meal at the local soup kitchen.

And, though we have many patriotic young Americans answering the call to military service, it is a very small portion of the population as a whole.

So, we may all feel the financial pinch and understand that we have Americans in harm’s way…but for many of us it’s really somebody else’s problem.  We’re all aware that tough decisions are going to have to be made in the near term…or risk a train wreck for our grandkids.

The battle cry these days seems to be “we need to make sacrifices…just as long as it’s not me who has to do the sacrificing.”

I’m not sure we are living up to the legacy of the Greatest Generation. 

And as we move through those tough choices, will we balance the budget on the backs of those who serve?

When it comes to our warfighters and vets, for the most part in the past promises made meant promises kept.  We trained and equipped our military to have overwhelming advantage…as they should.

And we made a deal with them…they agreed to defend us and our way of life, and we made certain benefits available for them and their families.

That is the sacrifice of those of us who live safely under the protections they provide.  Selflessness requires that we ratify that commitment to those who sacrifice the most for the common good.

It’s dangerous to attempt to summarize the impact of the deeds of an entire group of people in just one thought.

The length and breadth of the impact of the Greatest Generation makes such an attempt more treacherous still.

But, in my mind, there is one short quote that sums up succinctly what the Greatest Generation stood for…what they taught us all about service and humility…and about how each viewed their individual role in a set of events much bigger than any one person.

That quote comes from the incredible book by Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation.

Brokaw interviewed many who served during that time…documenting their amazing stories for posterity.

In one of those interviews, a vet provided to us all a clear view of the motivation of a generation that faced significant and multiple challenges over a lifetime.  That vet said, “I was a young man growing up in America.  I knew the difference between right and wrong.  Wrong couldn’t win.  So, I fought.”   Duty, Service, Family, God and Country.  Maybe there is a lesson in here for all of us…as relevant today for a generation searching for ways to work together to tackle our current challenges as it was to a world in crisis seven decades ago.

The Honorable William C. (“Bill”) Anderson served as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Logistics and the Air Force Senior Energy Executive under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.  The author can be contacted at [email protected]. SK1 Harold E. Anderson served aboard the USS Osmond Ingram, DD255/ADV9, from April 1942 until June 1944.  During his time aboard, the ship was presented with five battle stars (four for anti-submarine warfare and one for the invasion of Southern France) and the Presidential Unit Citation.