Who Replaces the Greatest Generation?

The death of Charles Durning on Christmas Eve, right after Dan Inouye’s, set me to thinking about the Greatest Generation of World War Two vets that’s fast disappearing–last time I checked, 1,500 a day.

And now we have George H.W. Bush, Avenger pilot, in intensive care.

What a profound resource they’ve been for this country! And what an inspiration. 

Take Durning’s case. He was one of the first glider troops to land on D-Day; his glider overshot its LZ and he had to fight his way back, alone, to the beach to avoid getting captured. Then, nine days later, he stepped on a German mine and received severe wounds to both legs, his chest, his right hand, and his face. When the wounds healed, back he went to his unit–just in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, where he was captured but managed to escape before the Germans shot him.

Like many of those who fought in World War Two, Durning never said much about what he’d done and endured: this wasn’t a generation that would care much for Facebook. The Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts said it for him. 

And the courage, dedication, and sheer guts of the 12 million Americans who wore uniforms was also matched by those who stayed home. In researching my book, Freedom’s Forge, I discovered what a national reservoir of talent and creativity the war production effort tapped into in order to make those 280,000 planes, 86,000 tanks, 8,800 warships, and all the rest. Workers, executives, engineers, drivers, women, African-Americans — 20 million strong. 

I learned they also paid a price. In 1942–the year of Midway and Coral Sea, as well as Guadalcanal, Operation Torch, and the battle of the Atlantic–the number of Americans killed or injured in war-related industries outnumbered those killed and wounded in uniform by a factor of 20 to one.

They weren’t just workers. There were 189 senior executives at General Motors who died on the job during the war: from heart attacks, strokes, stress-related diseases, or men who just burned themselves out trying to keep the war materiel flowing out of GM plants. 

It was a generation built on character. They had undergone the hardship of the Depression, and were undergirded by a religious faith that wasn’t yet afraid to speak its name. They believed the rewards of success had to be earned, not ladled out in order to build self-esteem. They weren’t very politically correct, but they saw the world with a moral clarity that their baby boomer offspring (including me) blurred in order to appear more sophisticated–a major cultural loss.

Will there be another generation to replace them?