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As Greatest Generation Dwindles, What We Need To Say

Updated on December 9, 2012

I remember many years ago when I was much younger, I would once in awhile run across an obituary of a World War I vet. No more. The last WW I vet, Florence Green died February 2012, while the last vet that saw combat in WW I, Harry Patch, died back in 2009.

The 1914 start of WW I must seem like ancient history to high school and college students. I would even haphazard a guess, in our fast paced, social media directed society, that to most Americans WW I is also ancient history. Less then a hundred years have passed but oh so much has changed.

At the Start of WW I the Polish Army still used mounted Calvary that were soon decimated by German tanks. We have no living witnesses to give us first hand accounts of the brutal trench warfare, the mustard gas that blinded thousands, the incessant shelling that left men “shell-shocked” and mentally crippled for life.

Our “Greatest Generation” of World War II is now rapidly disappearing. I read years ago that a thousand US WW II vets are dying daily. Since that article I have been scanning the obituaries daily in my local paper. Almost everyman I see that has died at the age of 87 or higher fought in WW II. I make a point of reading the obituaries of these ordinary men that were thrust in the position to do something extraordinary.

When a picture of one of these old vets accompany the obituary, we see a small man, a grandfather maybe. Lots of wrinkles, glasses and to put it bluntly, frail. When we read the obituary, we find that this man has fought on some small far off Island , unfamiliar to many Americans against the Japanese or maybe he fought in the deserts of Africa or small European villages fighting Germans.

Once in awhile there will be two pictures, one taken many years ago in a uniform and one taken maybe a year or so before his death. I find in the younger pictures the confidence of youth. Their caps are tilted at a jaunty angle and a easy smile. That's what these men were, once long ago.

We basically have a generation that have grown up during two Gulf Wars and the war in Afghanistan.

Yes, these are wars but nothing like WW I or WW II. Most American towns during WW II were deserted of young men and many middle age men. They were all off fighting.

After Pearl Harbor, for a time, we actually thought we were fighting for the survival of the United States. Our Pacific fleet had many ships destroyed, the American bases in Guam and the Philippines were captured by the Japanese and we saw, one country after the other in Europe falling to the Germans.

I don't know how many young people in the United States can comprehend food and gas being rationed, factories full of women because there were no men left, and blackouts on each coast for fear that the enemy would use the lights available for an invasion.

Not too many years from now, we won't have living witnesses to give us first hand accounts of what it was like storming the beach on Normandy or liberating a Nazi concentration camp. What it was like traveling and fighting on small, steamy, pacific Islands. The enemy taking a rope and tying himself high up in a tree, deep in the jungle waiting for the Allies to pass by. Death could come at anytime.

We were the lucky ones though, compared with Europe and England. Whole villages were pulverized into rubble. People would be dragged out of their houses and never be seen again. Cities Firebombed. These aging vets knew the destruction better then anyone else.

The numbers of troops, ships, planes and equipment during WWII are mind numbing. Afghanistan, our longest war of eleven years, reached 2,000 casualties recently. On D-Day, the first day of the invasion of Normandy we had two to three times as many casualties then the whole war in Afghanistan.

Our troops are fatigued and frustrated through repeated deployments during the last few years to combat zones.

That being said, could you imagine being deployed to a combat zone and never knowing when you would see home again? These W II vets didn't have any structured time frame on when they would see see the end of combat. For instance, in the South Pacific these vets would go through brutal combat, retake an Island then load back into ships and go take the next Island. Some did this for years.

Two books that helped me put the whole WW II generation in perspective are “The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk and “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener. I read these books one after the other. “The Caine Mutiny” gives the reader a sense of what it was like for ordinary people put in positions of power during war. It's not really a “War” book in the traditional sense. There is no blood or death. The book is more of the physiological strains experienced by the crew of one ship.

“Tales of the South Pacific” is a brilliant book of short stories that the reader soon realizes are intertwined throughout the book.

A few stories are humorous, others give the reader a sense of melancholy. Long after the last story is read, the reader will still be trying to process the tales told in this book. I bought a special edition of this book with hand drawn color Illustrations that sit on my bookshelf set aside for my “special books”.

Another book book on that special shelf holds a slim volume of “A Shropshire Lad”, poetry by A.E. Housman. Many of his poems deal with youth and death and WW I. Housman was a WW I vet and much of what he writes is from the view of a young man that witnessed death.

I wrote a hub which includes this book in “Three books I would never Sell

Our aging WW II vets can often be found sipping a beer in a dimly lit American Legion post or maybe sitting on a porch watching the world go by. The unassuming, old gent standing in line at the store or using a cane walking down the street was in all probability a WW II vet. He was once young, strong and thought he could conquer the world. Something he actually did, long ago. It's not to late to thank a member of our Greatest Generation.


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