Chapter 37 - The Greatest Generation
I have a friend whose father just passed away. He was one of what is termed "The Greatest Generation" and sadly we are losing more and more from this generation everyday. So why are our very senior citizens called the greatest generation and what does it mean for us today? This is the generation born between 1901 and 1927 and who came of age during the Depression and were the primary participants in World War II. In Tom Brokaw's best selling book, The Greatest Generation, he wrote that these men and women fought not for fame or recognition but because it was the "right thing to do."
The very first American military conscription occurred during the Civil War with the Civil War Draft Act of 1863. Similar to the draft during the Vietnam War the act engendered riots and protests and really targeted the poor as wealthier men could pay for a substitute to take their places or, in the case of Vietnam, receive waivers. There was not another draft until Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Services Act in 1917 in preparation for America's entry into World War I. In 1940 Congress passed the Burke-Wadsworth Act, the first peacetime draft, no doubt envisioning our participation in World War II. By the end of the war in 1945, 50 million men between eighteen and forty-five had registered for the draft and 10 million had been inducted in the military. World War II service encompassed rich and poor, with very limited exclusions to participation.
There are numerous books about this generation and their roles in World War II. Interestingly enough many formerly classified documents are now being released so there are many more stories to be told. If you'd like to learn more for Veteran's Day this year, here are some relatively new and definitely notable books to read. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction but all are historically accurate.
To Wake the Giant: A Novel of Pearl Harbor by Jeff Shaara - Shaara is one of my go-to historical fiction authors. He uses letters, logs, and personal reminiscences to develop his stories. This book about Pearl Harbor is a wonderful read and gives the reader a lot of background into what occurred there.
Immortal Valor by Robert Child - This compelling nonfiction tells the deeds of seven African-American heroes during World War II who did not receive the Medals of Honor they so richly deserved. Ultimately, in 1993 a US Army commission determined that these seven men, had been denied the Army's highest award simply due to racial discrimination. They were awarded the medals in 1993, all but one, posthumously. While the medals were important, their stories are key to understanding the war.
The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck - Another of my favorite authors, Robuck writes historical novels about interesting women. This is a fictionalized account of the life of Virginia Hall, a Baltimore debutante recruited by the British Special Operations Executive. She was the first woman settled into France to engage in espionage.
Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown - Brown first came to notice as an author with his book The Boys In The Boat. His most recent (2021) nonfiction book tells about four Japanese-American men who volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Not only does it detail the heroic exploits of the 442nd but also tells the stories of the families of the four and their challenges living in America during the same time period.
Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II by Alex Kershaw - With so many books about World War II written from the end of the event up to the present you would think there would be no new stories. Not so, as is evidenced by this 2022 nonfiction book about the most decorated American men of World War II, all from the same unit. This was a wonderful story of Medal of Honor winners who faced obstacles time and time again including in their post war lives.
So, to answer the question, why should we care today about "The Greatest Generation"? As the National World War II museum says on its website, "EVERY DAY, MEMORIES OF WORLD WAR II—ITS SIGHTS AND SOUNDS, ITS TERRORS AND TRIUMPHS—DISAPPEAR." World War II did, in fact, change the world. I believe that it is important for our children and grandchildren to understand the price of freedom and the responsibilities involved in victory. Learning about the men and women from all walks of life who committed their time, energies, and even lives to protect freedom is a good way to start.
Do you have any recent World War II books you'd like to suggest for Veteran's Day? Please share!