The Greatest Generation

Americans of all ages took a front row seat to the “Greatest Generation” during the opening scenes of “Saving Private Ryan.” This stunning depiction of the thousands of Allied forces who landed at Normandy to liberate France allowed us all to have a glimpse of the determination, fear and angst those soldiers felt. Driven by the concept “for the greater good,” these troops demonstrated the grit of sacrifice, courage and honor that would later earn them the title of the Greatest Generation.

Some of us grew up in homes listening to vivid stories of heroic acts and atrocious scenes our family’s veterans witnessed, and some of us grew up in homes where the war was never discussed. As we slowly say good-bye to the last survivors of the greatest generation, I want to highlight the ideals these brave patriots exhibited as they transformed the United States into a beacon of liberty.

In his 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” journalist Tom Brokaw shares the stories of men and women whose selfless acts and willingness to do what was best for family, community and country helped redefine our nation, both on and off the battlefield. Born at the turn of the last century between 1901 and 1927, members of this G.I. Generation were raised during the aftermath of World War I and depravity of the Great Depression. America’s reluctance to enter another European war stalled our decision to join the conflict until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After that event, the men and women who enlisted to serve their county no longer had qualms about fighting. All told, 416,800 American military men and women would perish for the greater good of liberty.

The Greatest Generation also consists of those who never stepped foot in a combat zone, but rather showed courage, sacrifice and a strong work ethic on the home front. Families gathered around the radio for updates and news reports from overseas while trying to stretch their rations. Labor shortages forced a cultural shift in the workforce as women rolled up their sleeves and flexed their “We Can Do It!” muscles working as electricians, riveters and welders in the country’s defense industries, filling the jobs left vacant by men serving abroad and meeting the demand for armaments needed to win the war. Communities banded together and held scrap metal drives to contribute to the cause.

The spirit of sacrifice as a way to achieve victory in the war was instilled into the entire culture during these years. To subsidize their family’s ration stamps for meat, sugar, butter and produce, Americans planted over 20 million “victory gardens,” providing nearly 40% of the vegetables consumed during the war. The U.S. Office of War distributed posters that said, “Do with less-so they’ll have enough,” “Give ’em the stuff to fight with, sacrifice for freedom,” and “Sacrifice, the privilege of free men.” They scraped money together to purchase bonds to help finance the war.

The sentiment of sacrifice even spilled over into the entertainment industry. When the baseball commissioner offered to suspend games for the war, President Roosevelt responded with a “green letter” to play ball to help with morale and serve as a diversion for Americans. Patriotic music glorifying the war filled the airways with hits like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” playing between Glenn Miller’s orchestral music. Big celebrities, such as Bob Hope, supported the cause by performing at military bases around the globe.

As much as Americans rallied at home, nothing compared to the integrity, sacrifice and courage of those who boarded ships and planes headed to Europe and the Pacific. The war forever altered the innocence of our country, and of our people. It thrust the United States into the post war role of the defender of the free world as an “Iron Curtain” descended across the globe, but this generation continued to respond, not willing to give up all that had been gained by their hardships, sacrifices and lives lost.

To honor this generation and the only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, Hershel W. Williams, I’ve filed Senate Concurrent Resolution 28. This resolution urges the president to designate a state funeral for Mr. Williams, upon his death, to commend his bravery and heroism, while paying tribute to the 16 million soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in our Armed Forces from 1941-1945. Their resiliency, in the face of evil, destruction and death, is indeed what earned them the title of the Greatest Generation.

This column was published in the Joplin Globe’s Better Living publication on April 1, 2022.

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