The Greatest Generation’s Last Hurrah

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2014

The G.I. Generation, born between 1901 to 1924, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew up in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II, considered to be the largest and deadliest global military conflict in the world’s history. The world-wide war directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries.

With the enactment of a formal declarations of war in Dec. 1941, the ranks of the United States military, by draft and voluntary enlistment, ultimately swelled to
16 million soldiers. Ultimately, those serving in World War II came from every state, ethnic group and race, from poor and well-to-do families.

World War II veterans put their youth on hold to defend the country. Their ages ranged from ages 17 (with parental permission) to 37 years. When discharged a grateful country’s G.I. Bill Education benefits would send them to college, propelling them into professional careers, giving them a good income to raise a family and to economically spur the economy. .

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

The Last Man Standing

In their middle years, America’s “The Greatest Generation” would see the passing of the last Civil War veteran. On August 2, 1956, the 20th century veterans would learn about the death of Albert Henry Woolson, 106, the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, who fight in the nation’s bloody American Civil War. In 1864, Woolson had enlisted as a drummer boy in Company C 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Woolson is considered to be the last surviving Civil War veteran on either side whose status is undisputed. At least three men who died after him claimed to be Confederate veterans but their veteran status has been questioned. .

According to the August 3, 1956 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, upon Woolson’s death, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

In 2011, a World War I veteran was nationally recognition, like Civil War Veteran Woolson, for being the last American doughboy. Frank Buckles, 101, had the distinction of being the last survivor of 4.73 million Americans who fought in the “War to End All Wars.” The 16-year old enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in France. Buckles left military service with the rank of corporal.

In his final years, Buckles served as Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. As chairman, he called for a World War I memorial similar to other war memorials inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. He would campaign for the District of Columbia War Memorial to be renamed the National World War I Memorial.

Upon Buckles passing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, issued a release, stating, We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated,” adds Shinseki.

The Twilight Years of WWII Veterans

On November 11, there were fewer aging World War II veterans attending ceremonies held throughout the nation honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

Over the next two decades, America’s World War II soldiers are dying quickly. We will again see another generation of soldiers passing, like Woolson or Buckles.

At the end of World War II, there were 16 million who served our nation in that horrific war. Thirty years ago, when President Ronald Reagan traveled to the battle site of Pointe du Hoc, located at a 100 ft cliff overlooking the English Channel on the coast of Normandy in northern France, there were only 10.7 million U.S. veterans left. The President came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Normandy invasion, recognizing the American Ranger team that took heavy casualties in capturing the German-occupied cliff.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, our frail World War II veterans are dying at a quick rate of just 555 a day. This means there are only 1.34 million veterans remaining. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal battle experiences. When this happens their stories, like Woolson and Buckles, will only be told in history books or by television documentaries or by historians and academics.

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day ceremonies and activities were held in 15 Rhode Island communities to honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, there are only 3,951 World War II veterans alive in the Ocean State. The elderly veteran’s numbers dwindle at these celebrations and even at their reunions because of their frailty and health issues.

We are posed to see a generation of veterans vanish right before our eyes. I say, cherish them while you can. Urge those around you who fought in World War II to tell stories and oral histories, for the sake of future generations. They have much to say, we have much to learn.

The National World War II Museum in Louisiana. To learn more about the Greatest Generation and the global war they fought in, go to http://www.nationalww2museum.org.

My commentary is dedicated to Second Lt. Frank M. Weiss, my father, who died in 2003 at 89 years old.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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Sipping Cognac Signals an End of a Generation

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2013

On November 11, fewer aging World War II veterans attended ceremonies held throughout the country honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals known as the “Greatest Generation), are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

According to the Veteran’s Administration, our elder Word War II veterans are dying at a rate of just over 600 a day. This means there are approximately only 1.2 million veterans remaining out of the 16 million who served our nation in that war. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal experiences. When this happens there stories would only be told in some history books or by television documentaries.

The G.I. Generation, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II. Brokaw’s 1998 best seller, The Greatest Generation, put this generation, born between 1901 to 1924, firmly on the public’s radar screen.

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

A Gathering to Remember

As with others of G.I Generation, old age and infirmity took its toll on the 80 members of the famed Doolittle Raiders. On Nov. 9, three of the remaining survivors gathered once more on Veterans Day weekend to honor their 76 fallen comrades-in-arms and made a final toast to them. While not related by blood, these surviving members (plus one not attending) had history that bound them tightly together.

At this invitation-only ceremony, at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the surviving three members of the famed Doolittle Raiders, Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98, Lt. Col. Edward J. Saylor, 93, Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, 92, coming as far away as Texas, Montana and Washington State, came to honor their 76 deceased bomber crew members.

Health issues would keep Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, a native of Ohio, from attending the ceremony. Hite watched the ceremony with his family members from Nashville, Tenn. Wearing the traditional dress for reunions, a blue blazer and gray pants and a Raider tie, Hite gave his own personal salute to his fallen brothers with a silver goblet a few days earlier

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Over seventy-one-years ago, sixteen U.S. Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, carrying 80 army air force volunteer, took off from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, to bomb industrial and military site in Tokyo and four major cities in Japan. This was America’s first air raid on the Empire of Japan that took place 133 days after Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raiders bailed out or crash-landed their planes (that ran out of fuel) in China, and most were led to safety by Chinese villagers and soldiers. According to the Doolittle Raiders organization, over a quarter million Chinese men, women and children were killed by the Japanese for aiding the Raiders to escape.

Although the “psychological” air attack was in retaliation for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, this top-secret mission, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, had an added benefit of boosting the sagging morale of the American public.

Meanwhile, due to the surprise attack on the Japanese homeland, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the raid on Pearl Harbor, decided to save face by moving up his battle plans by eight months to attack Midway Island. American code breakers were able to give date and location of this planned attack allowing the U.S. Navy to move three carriers — U.S.S Hornet, U.S.S. Enterprise, and the U.S.S. Yorktown — to ambush Yamamoto’s naval force, ultimately sinking four Japanese carriers, destroying 350 airplanes.

Later on, the Tokyo raid was credited in turning the war around in the Pacific because of the devastating defeat of the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in June 1942… The Japanese military machine could not replace those carriers nor could it replace the trained pilots and mechanics lost in the naval battle.

The Final Toast

According to Tom Casey, Business Manager for the Doolittle Raiders, on Nov. 9, an estimated ten thousand spectators, many young children, and aging veterans, lined the streets on the military base waving American flags, waiting to meet the three Lincoln sedans carrying the three Raiders who came to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

After an afternoon memorial service with speeches and taps, a wreath was laid by the Doolittle Raider monument outside the museum as five B-25 bombers flew low over head in the famous missing man formation as a tribute. The Raiders made their last toast that evening to comrades who died in the air attack or since their mission, says Casey.

The original plan for the last toast called for the last two Raiders standing to break open the bottle of cognac, toasting each other and their departed members, stated Casey, who noted that this signify the end of the Doolittle Raider’s mission.

However, Casey remembers the two major changes were made last October at meeting in Washington, D.C. by the four surviving Raiders. Their first decision was to schedule their last public reunion in April 2013 at Fort Walton Beach Florida, the home of Eglin Air Force Base where the Raiders trained for their mission.

“They were also getting older, and travel was getting more difficult, so the second decision was made to not wait until there were only two standing members as initially planned, Casey recounts, stressing that it was important to bring together the five remaining Raiders together while they were physically able to meet to officially close their mission. Unfortunately, Major Thomas C. Griffin passed away weeks later. With the urging of General Hudson, Director of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, with the agreement of the surviving members the last toast would be scheduled for November 2013 on Veterans Day.

At the evening ceremony, before attending family members of their deceased crew members, air force leadership, and other invitees, a historian read the names of all 80 Doolittle raiders, with the three surviving veterans calling out “here.”

Among the many speakers, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh told over 600 attendees, “As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest professional honor I’ve ever had to speak here with this crowd at this event.”

Welsh admitted that first book he read as a youngster was Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. “It was given to me by my father, also a World War II vet, with the words that I should read it closely because this is this what America is all about. I’ve never forgotten those words,” he said.

“The Doolittle raiders have been celebrated in book and in journals … in magazines … in various papers. They’ve had buildings named after them … had streets named after them. People play them in movies,” Welsh added.

“They [the survivors] hate to hear this, but Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders are truly lasting American heroes, but they are also Air Force heroes. They pioneered the concept of global strike … the idea that no target on earth is safe from American air power, states Welsh.

Concluding the emotional ceremony, Cole, representing his fellow Doolittle Raider survivors, opened the 1896 Cognac (denoting Doolittle’s birth year) and gave his final toast.

Casey notes that this bottle was presented to General Doolittle on his sixtieth birthday by a representative of the Hennessy Cognac Company. “That evening was the first time ever the bottle was taken out of its original box and shown to the public and displayed,” he said.

“Gentlemen, I propose a toast,” Cole told the remaining Doolittle Raiders. “To the gentlemen we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since. Thank you very much and may they rest in peace,” then he sipped the cognac from an engraved silver goblet.

The 80 silver goblets in the ceremony were presented to the Raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Ariz. The Raiders’ names were engraved twice, the second upside-down. During the ceremony, white-gloved cadets presented the personal goblets to the three survivors, while their long-time manager poured the 117 year old cognac into the into the participants’ goblets. Those of the deceased were turned upside-down.

The four remaining members of the Doolittle Raiders will continue to keep their heroic tales alive by personally sharing their experiences. When the last cup is turned upside down, it will be their oral histories, history books or documentaries that will give us an impersonal small glimpse of what it took to answer the call to duty and to do that job well.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.