Truly, The Greatest Generation
Several years ago, former NBC News anchor, Tom Brokaw wrote a book called The Greatest Generation. In it he described the accomplishments of the Americans born in the late 1910s/early 1920s. These men and women survived the Depression, fought in World War II, came home to populate the suburbs around major cities and gave birth to the “Baby Boomers.” They also were the workers and business owners who established the foundation of our economy that helped to defeat the, then dreaded, concept of Communism.
Prior to the book’s publishing, I never really thought about that generation other than that my grandparents were a part of it. While my mother and in-laws are baby boomers (my father was born in June, 1945 ten months prior to the baby boom) I never really considered how the world changed with the actions of my grandparents’ compatriots. Yes, my maternal grandfather (a decorated WWII veteran) was a successful lawyer who even argued before the Supreme Court. Yet, I never thought about how he and his generation helped shape the America that we know today. My paternal grandfather, like my wife’s paternal grandfather (also a decorated WWII veteran), was the working class. My grandfather was a milkman and my wife’s grandfather was a bus and trolley operator.
Today in 2012, almost a century after they were born, there are only a few of these great Americans left. Approximately 1,000 WWII veterans die every day. These were the men who fought for democracy and liberated the Concentration Camps. The women stepped up to keep the factories running and even played professional baseball while the men were at war. When they are gone, no one will be left to tell their stories. We can easily read the accounts in history books, but the flavor or essence of the events will be lost in the retelling.
Over the last year I have gotten to know two men who belong to my Synagogue: Herman “Hy” Horowitz and Seymour Fahrer. For years I thought of them as just two older gentlemen who sat in the back of the sanctuary during services. I never paid them any mind. Both were fairly innocuous. But in our Shul’s efforts to connect the older members to the younger ones, we got to learn about their stories. Both were WWII veterans with very different experiences.
Mr. Horowitz was a tank driver who not only liberated a concentration camp, but also aided hungry and dying Europeans with his own “C” rations. His efforts even earned him the honor of Chevalier – knighted by France. Mr. Fahrer spent his military service in German prisoner of war camps. Each contributed to the war effort and each is alive today to tell their stories.
Many veterans look at their service in different ways. My father-in-law, a Vietnam War Naval veteran, rarely talks about it but at times will surprise us with some of his accounts. My grandfather, who suffered from a form of PTSD for the balance of his life reluctantly spoke of his experiences. On the flip side, my wife’s grandfather attended reunions and spoke with great pride of his service to his country.
On a recent trip to Washington DC, we went to the Mall to pay tribute to the veterans of America’s military conflicts by visiting the World War II, Vietnam War and Korean War memorials. All three are very different in design and layout.
The Vietnam War memorial has a quiet, understated dignity as you read the thousands and thousands of names of the honored dead.
The Korean War Memorial attempts to recreate the experience of a platoon patrolling a rice paddy. The look of fear and anticipation is carved in their faces. And behind them is a marble wall with etchings of the veterans and vehicles from the war.
The World War II Memorial is the grandest of them all. Pillars surround a fountain commemorating the states, territories and United States’ commonwealths where soldiers came from. Quotes from Presidents Truman and Roosevelt are carved into the marble. Copper friezes show scenes of the contributions from women and civilians. It is a very impressive and awesome display to view and walk through. It is indeed a fitting tribute to the people who served.
Yet, there is another war memorial that few know about – but I always make a point of visiting. I only found out about it while doing a shoot on the Mall in 1996. It is tucked away off the side of the Mall midway between the Korean War Memorial and the Washington Monument. There is heavy brush and big fences that house the maintenance crew’s vehicles and equipment thereby making it hard to see from the main path next to the reflecting pool. There is no sign that points it out to visitors. This ignored but simple structure is the World War I Memorial. Over 100,000 American soldiers died in that conflict. Shouldn’t they get their due? Is a hidden and ignored memorial a proper tribute to those who fought and died for democracy?
I’m not sure how many WWI veterans are still alive today. Their stories have been reduced to history books and accounts of battles from observers and historians. Can historians properly describe the smells, sights and sounds of the battles? You can’t read or capture that in a book. There will come a time when every member of the “Greatest Generation” will no longer be alive. We need to feast on and digest the details of their lives to see how we arrived at the life that we take for granted.
Today we enjoy smart phones, tablet computers and the convenience of the Internet. Our world is connected in ways that our grandparents could never imagine much less fathom. Consider that the twentieth century started with the Wright Brothers flight in Kittyhawk, North Carolina and sixty-six short years later Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon. Our advances, conveniences and technology can be directly linked to the foundation laid by the people born in the 1910s and 1920s. These people will not be around forever. They need to be respected and listened to. I always felt that Tom Brokaw was looking for a grand term when he titled his book and the generation as the “Greatest” (much like Muhammad Ali?). But when I consider that they have created the world that I enjoy now, I do see them as such.
April 13, 2012