December 2, 2020

The Passing of the Greatest Generation

By Chaplain Mike for Veterans Day, 2010

This piece was originally written in 2005 to share with my hospice team for Memorial Day. As we honor our veterans today, I thought it would be good to share it with you. Yesterday, I did another funeral for one of these fine men, a friend who served in the Navy in both WWII and Korea. As we stood in the brilliant sun of an Indian summer afternoon, heard the crack of the rifles, the plaintive melody of taps, watched old soldiers fold the flag and whisper their grateful words to a grieving family, it struck me afresh that we are witnessing a significant changing of the guard. These elders, who experienced nearly all the fantastic movements and changes of the 20th century are passing from us. I have read reports that as many as 1500 a day are passing on.

Who will take their place? Who will remember? Who will tell their stories? Who will celebrate their lives?

One of the most delightful and humbling things I have experienced as a hospice chaplain has been the privilege of visiting with a number of World War II veterans. I have met people who were actually present at places that have mythical status in our American memory: Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, and others. This generation will soon have passed on, and it may be that we shall not see their like again.

Now, let it be said that I am certainly no fan of war. I represent a generation from which many have consistently raised loud protests against the folly and immorality of unjustified uses of force. I have sympathized with and joined those voices many times. Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that WWII was a just and necessary war, and that those who answered the call to combat the evils that then threatened the world were true heroes. Now we have the privilege of serving them at the end of their days.

Tom Brokaw brought these men and women to our nation’s attention  in a fresh way with his wonderful book, The Greatest Generation. Brokaw told the stories of ordinary men and women whose lives were forever changed by their experiences, and who forever changed the world by their extraordinary contributions. On this Veterans Day, I can do no better than quote his words describing them.

These men and women came of age in the Great Depression, when economic despair hovered over the land like a plague. They had watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. They had learned to accept a future that played out one day at a time Then, just as there was a glimmer of economic recovery, war exploded across Europe and Asia. When Pearl Harbor made it irrefutably clear that America was not a fortress, this generation was summoned to the parade ground and told to train for war. They left their ranches in Sully County, South Dakota, their jobs on the main street of Americus, Georgia, they gave up their place on the assembly lines in Detroit and in the ranks of Wall Street, they quit school or went from cap and gown directly into uniform.

They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs.

They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting, often hand to hand, in the most primitive conditions possible, across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria. They fought their way up a necklace of South Pacific islands few had ever heard of before and made them a fixed part of American history—islands with names like Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Okinawa. They were in the air every day, in skies filled with terror, and they went to sea on hostile waters far removed from the shores of their homeland.

…When the war was over, the men and women who had been involved, in uniform and in civilian capacities, joined in joyous and short-lived celebrations, then immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They were mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.

…They were a new kind of army now, moving onto the landscapes of industry, science, art, public policy, all the fields of American life, bringing to them the same passions and discipline that had served them so well during the war.

…They weren’t perfect. They made mistakes. They allowed McCarthy-ism and racism to go unchallenged for too long. Women of the World War II generation, who had demonstrated so convincingly that they had so much more to offer beyond their traditional work, were the under-pinning for the liberation of their gender, even as many of their husbands resisted the idea. When a new war broke out, many of the veterans initially failed to recognize the differences between their war and the one in Vietnam.

…It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order.


The Bible instructs us to give “honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7). Surely this passing generation of ordinary people who did extraordinary things deserves our gratitude and recognition. They won history’s worst war and saved the world. They built the America you and I know and benefit from every day. They may very well be, as Tom Brokaw calls them, “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”

As you and I serve them now in their final days, may we learn from their stories and walk in their footsteps.

Comments

  1. For those who don’t know, I am Andy and Damaris’s daughter in the Navy, currently stationed in Sasebo, Japan, and posting from an unspecifiable location in the waters of Southeast Asia. As I travel around many of the areas that these men paid for in blood, both land and sea, I am constantly reminded of not only what we owe them, but of the standards they set. Kennedy said that “a nation reveals itself not only be the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” It gives me hope for our country to think that, as they rose to the challenge, surely we can do whatever is demanded of us.

    Thanks for posting this, Chaplain Mike. We’re thinking of them out here, too.

    • Thanks for writing, Kate. I wish you well out there in the sea off Southeast Asia.

      (Your mother is a wonderful writer!)

    • Kate,

      Thank you so much for your service to your country. We appreciate your sacrifice and all you do to make today a day of freedom for us all.

      Blessings to you!

  2. Chaplain Mike,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment. The folks in this generation deserve much praise, and the sacrifices they made are foreign to our current understanding. But, and here is the question, what happened to this generations kids?

    How could the greatest generation give us the worst generation (boomers)? The boomers have almost singel handedly crippled the country their parents worked so hard to build. I just don’t get the disconnect. Was it a case of the Greatest Generation giving to their children all they never had and in turn spoiling them?

    For the record I’m 33. (So it’s not like my bunch is a great lot either)

    • agoggans — There’s an interesting book called “The Death of the Grown-Up,” by Diana West, that deals with your question. It’s worth reading.

    • Two possible answers:

      We lost many of the good ones in Vietnam. Many died. Many more were wounded physically or emotionally.

      Spoiled brats learn to make the most noise. It was only natural for parents coming out of The Great Depression and WWII to want their children to have everything they had been denied. Unfortunately, some percentage never learned to share.

      I look at my own nieces and nephews who are able to give their kids so much. I wish I knew how to communicate to them that teaching their children to share and to give would be a far more valuable gift than showering them with fad toys and clothing.

      • But I must add there are many selfless serving now. The other day I met a man who was just retiring from the Air Force. His retirement had been revoked several times, and so he served on. His wife had died in the meantime. Now his only desire was to get to know his grandchildren.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        We lost many of the good ones in Vietnam. Many died. Many more were wounded physically or emotionally.

        Just as Europe did in World War One.

  3. As a former Navy member and as someone who later as an organist worked with a number of Navy chaplains, there’s nothing like singing the Navy hymn (Eternal Father Strong to Save) with people for whom its words really mean something personal (hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea). Thank God for all those who have put their lives in peril.

    • Every night, the ship’s chaplain starts the evening prayer with those words: “Eternal Father, strong to save.” Amen.

  4. To all who have served and sacrificed, Thank You.

  5. Kate, Jeff B, and any other members of the Navy reading:

    Cheers and best wishes from sea-faring Annapolis! We are thinking of you all.

  6. Thanks for this post, Mike. As the daughter of a retired Naval officer and a clergy woman who is opposed to war, I am constantly reminded of the importance to honor and remember all of our service men and women who have answered their calling in life to serve their country in military service. I truly believe it is a calling. They put themselves in harms way to keep us save and provide us with the ability to worship God freely, to have freedoms within our own country that so many throughout the world do not have, and a sense of safety that other countries don’t have. I hope that today people will pay honor and remembrance to all of the veterans as well as those currently serving. May God bless them.

  7. Chaplain Mike,
    Wonderful sentiments.

    Is it too cynical to point out that for the past 30 years we have been dismantling everything in this country that this generation fought for?
    Now more than ever we need the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Peace.

  8. I have great respect for the generation that lived through the Depression and fought the Second World War. But there is a difference between genuine respect and hagiography, and I fear that Brokaw is more the latter than the former.

    Throughout U.S. history there’s been a tendency to think that the older generation has some kind of noble quality that the younger generations lack. In the first half of the 19th century many worried that they could not measure up to the Revolutionary generation. At the end of the 19th century the younger generation, represented by people like Theodore Roosevelt, worried that they could not measure up to the Civil War generation.

    I have many students (I’m a college teacher) who lament that they lack the fire and courage of the Sixties generation of college students.

    Conversely, there’s a tendency of older generations to see a decline in quality when they assess younger Americans. Witness the way that some vets of World War II ridiculed returning Vietnam vets for “losing” the war in Southeast Asia.

    Kenneth Rose has some wise things to say on this phenomenon in Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II.

  9. My father was of that generation. He survived, but not intact, the beaches of Normandy. Here is a tribute I wrote to him last Vet’s Day and soon after finding out he had suffered from “Battle Fatigue:” http://evangelicalinthewilderness.blogspot.com/2010/01/my-father-man-i-wish-i-had-known.html

  10. Tigger 23505 says

    It is easy to look at what surrounds us and think that the whole country has gone to the dogs. The truth of the matter is that we still grow, people with the same character as the every day Americans that we venerate as the Greatest Generation. Do not misread me, they did great things, they did ‘impossible’ things and we owe them our gratitude.

    I am reminded of that every time I play taps, I’m a bugler. My last funeral was for a gentleman, who died giving his life that others might live. He was a firefighter, playing taps for him was an honor. His fellow firefighters took me in their embrace and told me more by their actions, grief, and determination to properly honor their friend.

    If you look hard enough, deep enough, and long enough you will find that the Greatest Generation is not dead, but continues to march along. As their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers in the background, in the shadows, doing the things that need to be done and moving on to the next thing.

  11. Living in a military town, I hear news stories constantly of soldiers deployed to war zones for four or more times, of being moved from one war zone to another, of the families waiting anxiously at home, of soldiers courageously overcoming crippling injuries, of the memorials for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps the death toll from this war doesn’t come near that of WW II and the victory may not be nearly as decisive, but I believe this generation of soldiers is equally great.

  12. The Korean war (undeclared) followed a few years after the end of WWII. I was a child then and clearly remember the headline in the paper. The Korean vets are the younger siblings of the greatest generation and share the same values. These vets (mostly men) are rarely mentioned when we talk about our veterans. I don’t think many people know just how awful it was there for our soldiers and how many died. I have a dear friend who is 78 and fought in Korea. I was planning a trip to South Korea and suggested that he and his wife come with me. His memories are so horrible that he was unable to even consider returning there. After that discussion, I happened on a book about this war and was astounded at the fighting conditions and the brutality of hand to hand combat, taking, losing and retaking small pieces of ground, frostbite, hunger, dirty water, etc. Then, we almost lost the whole thing, settling instead for an armistice of sorts. The Vietnam vets were treated badly, but have since been rehabilitated in the public eye to some degree. However, the Korean vets were and still are pretty much ignored.

  13. Good night, Happy Veteran’s Day!

    I just simply wished to wish America’s 25 million veterans a very happy Veteran’s Day. Additionally lets me quote Veteran’s Day quote which I really like:

    “We make war that we may live in peace . . . -= Aristotle”. ..

    Whenever you need to get additional info about Veterans Day festivities, coupons, its own The historical past, pictures and also more and more, Military.com has great web-based archive with everything else for helping.

  14. To all Veterans who served…thank you!! Words can’t describe enough how I feel. There are so many battle fields in American history. From Bunker Hill to Fort Ticonderoga, from New Orleans, to Atlanta, Gettysburg and Manassas, to Marnes, to Iwo Jima, Normandy, Midway, to Ardennes. Remember there’s more…from Inchon, Pusan to the Choisin Resevoir to Pleiku, Saigon and Khe Sanh. Finally we can’t forget the more recent conflicts from Kuwait in 1991 to Tikrit, Basra, and Baghdad to Kandahar, Kabul, and Khost. With that let me end this post with the words of one of the most eloquent Amercans to have existed..

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.