The Greatest Generation’s Greatest Generation

by Placerville Newswire / Nov 08, 2018 / comments

[Jon Hendrickson]
November 11, 2018 is Veterans’ Day, and a special time to remember the Armistice.  

When I was a kid, Veterans’ Day was called Armistice Day.  For a few weeks in the fall, my dad would come home with these little red paper flowers with green stems.  I think I remember being told they were poppies because for years I thought all paper flowers were called poppies.  I didn’t have any idea what the flowers were all about, but was curious about the occasional old man of my grandfather’s age wearing a blue cap standing on a corner of the main street of our little town holding a fistful of those little flowers.  And about the people who would come up and buy them from him.  And then you would see these little red paper flowers pinned to the lapels of the ladies and gentlemen of our town.  And then, on a chilly, bright sunny morning I would stand on the side of that main street with my mom and dad and watch 20 or so old men of my grandfather’s age walking in the street, some holding flags anchored to their bellies leading the way and others with rifles up on their shoulders, followed by another group of younger men of my dad’s age, all wearing blue caps.  Then there were some girls twirling batons followed by a band and a couple cars with people waving at us and then it was over.  I think I remember my grandfather being one of the old men with the blue caps walking in the street and am pretty sure it didn’t occur to me then to wonder why my dad wasn’t one of the group of men I knew were his friends walking in the street.  But he and my mom and all of the adults on the sidewalk in front of this little ceremony were wearing those little red paper flowers.  The next day and for the rest of the year, you didn’t see them.

I would have been four or five then, and memories from that age are hazy and fragmented.  They get kind of confused, except to the extent they are refreshed and confirmed by later events or conversations you have with your grandfather, dad, their friends and other relatives, what you read in books about others’ recollections or study in school.  Growing up, I became aware of the events of the Second World War because that was my dad’s generation’s war.  When his generation’s war began, World War One had ended only slightly less than 20 years before and U.S. participation began a little over 23 years after the Armistice.  I went into the Navy in 1970, only 25 years after the end of WWII.  The first Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield, occurred a little less than 18 years after the end of the Vietnam War and the Global War on Terrorism, in its various iterations, has been ongoing since September 11, 2001.  It’s now been 38 years since U.S. participation in the war of my generation, Vietnam, ended.  This recitation may at first blush appear to support a myth in current parlance viewing the United States as merely another warmonger among a league of warmongers.  In contrast, the central theme of America’s wars, particularly since the beginning of the 20th century when General Black Jack Pershing, among others, defended the southern U.S. border from incursion by Mexican revolutionaries, has been to fight potential and actual enemies if not actually on their own ground, at least not on ours.  Our people have in varying proportions always answered their country’s call by running toward, rather than away from, the threat.  And each time they have, they have done so with a perspective informed by their knowledge of their fathers’ war.  And maybe their fathers’ fathers’ war.

Both of my grandfathers served in the Army during the Great War, as it was known at the time.  Wars don’t always have a name that sticks until after they’re over.  The Great War wasn’t known as World War I until World War II came along and, even then, World War II wasn’t known generally by that name until after it had been going on long enough that the participants figured out it should be called that because it actually was a Second World War.  

My mom’s dad was a gentle man of very few words, with whom I don’t remember having much conversation before he died when I was 13.  So, I don’t know anything about where he served or what he did.  But I do remember there were two or three American Legion riflemen from Leeds, North Dakota at his prairie graveside one bleak winter morning to render the three volley rifle salute and fold the flag that draped his coffin.  And I also know his three sons all served, two in the Army during World War II and the youngest in the Navy at the end of the Korean conflict.  

My dad’s dad went to France where he was a sergeant in charge of a motor pool.  He brought back a small collection of French 75mm artillery shell casings transformed by intricate metal work into containers for celebratory drinking.  And a few stories of the sort told by soldiers of their experience in Europe.  Four of his five sons all served in the military, one a sailor in the South Pacific during WWII, another in the Army serving stateside during Korea and his twin brother an Air Force Airman in Greenland at the same time, the fourth a now retired California National Guard Command Sergeant Major.  My dad was 4F because of the effects of childhood polio, but still served as a civilian employee of the Navy in Hawaii during and shortly after WWII.

In its participation in World War I for a little over a year and a half, the United States military mobilized nearly five million Americans, over half of which served overseas, sustaining a loss of over116,000 dead and about 320,000 sick and wounded.  This was during the beginning of the Spanish Influenza epidemic and about half the total casualties were disease and non-combat related.  Three fourths of the American combat deaths occurred in the three months immediately preceding the Armistice.  The Secretary of War at the time noted that about 25% of all American men of military age were serving in one of the services at that time.  The last American veteran of The Great War died in 2011 at the age of 110.  

Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation” to describe American Second World War participants, military and civilian, in this greatest of war efforts in his book of the same name.  For the most part, that generation grew up during the depression of the 1930s in the shadow of The Great War.  Between December 7, 1941 and September 2, 1945, sixteen million Americans, roughly 11% of the entire U.S. population at the time, served in the military services, 73% serving overseas.  Over 405,000 were killed in action and about another 671,000 were wounded.  Fewer than 500,000 veterans of that war are alive today and around 500 are passing away each day.  With them are passing into history the memory of that conflict and the time in which it occurred.  Their fathers’ war has already passed into that state of rest, as is the memory of The Greatest Generation’s Greatest Generation.  Among them was my dad’s dad to whom I said good-bye in 1979 as his remaining buddies from the Minnie Barrow Barracks of World War One Veterans solemnly folded the flag over his casket while reciting: 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

- Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD, Canadian Expeditionary Force, Ypres, Belgium; 5/3/1915

On Sunday, when the clock at Greenwich, England, passes into the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 2018 (3:00 a.m. in Placerville), London’s Big Ben will strike eleven times and mark the 100th anniversary of the end of The First World War, The Great War, “The War to End All Wars.”  Our time on this mortal coil and the memory of our and our fathers’ generations’ conflicts will also soon enough pass into that repose.