The greatest generation


Evans “Buddy” King

I was lucky enough to be a child of World War II generation parents. I am writing this column on June 6 – D-Day.

Growing up in my household, you needed to know certain dates that represented significant events in the lives of those who served, or lived through the anxiety of having a loved one serve, in World War II.

This meant almost everybody in America during 1941-1945, as the war was not some distant event affecting only a few. The entire country was involved in one manner or another.

Pretty much from the time I started school, my Dad expected me to know the critical dates of the war – May 8 (V-E Day – Victory in Europe, V-J Day – Aug. 14 or 15 or Sept. 2 (stood for Victory over Japan and several dates are recognizing), Dec. 7 (a biggie – Pearl Harbor Day). I was expected to know these dates at the breakfast table when I was a kid and what they represented.

The most significant of these dates in my home was June 6 – D-Day, the massive invasion of France, which was the beginning of the end for Hitler and the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy which wanted to rule the world.

My Dad had flown on this day, a diversionary mission to the south of Normandy where the invasion occurred. Not as much fun as it sounds like since the objective was to draw the Germans’ fire.

I hope these events are still properly taught in our schools. I fear that they may now be portrayed as imperialistic acts of aggression by America. I hope not, if only for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of American lives lost in the conflict.

My father served in the Army Air Corps, before the Air Force became a separate branch of the military. He was a bombardier in the 8th Air Force, the “Mighty Eighth”, known for having one of the highest casualty rates of the war, primarily because the 8th flew massive bombing raids over targets in France, Belgium and Germany prior to and after D-Day.

My Dad was trained in the operation of the Norden bombsight, which played a major role in assuring victory to the Allies. Two of his brothers, and I believe two of his sisters, were also in the armed service during the war, typical of its reach and impact on families.

Like most WWII vets, my Dad was humble and low-key when talking about the war. I liked to call him on June 6, particularly in his later years, to get him to reminisce about that day. On one of the significant anniversaries, the 40th or 50th, I called and mentioned that some historians were calling June 6, 1944 perhaps the most significant day of the 20th Century.

He responded by saying “yes, it was either D-Day or the day the Sox clinched the pennant in ‘67”. Typical response of the “greatest generation,” men (and women) who interrupted their lives (my father was principal of Christiansburg High when he went to war) to fight perhaps the most significant war of all time, and who then returned to civilian life to lead one of the greatest advancements of a society in history.

This is not to say that my Dad was totally unaffected by his service. It had a profound impact on many parts of his life, and thus mine. For example, when I was a kid, Hogan’s Heroes was a popular television comedy series based on the “fun and high jinks in a German POW camp in WWII.”

It aired only about 20 years after the end of the war, which in hindsight might have been a tad too soon for some. Like my Dad. When it came on the air on Friday nights, my Dad would get up and leave the den, saying something to the effect that “there wasn’t a damn thing funny about German POW camps, that there were no Sergeant Schultzes in real life.”

Understandable, since he had lived part of his life just one bad mission away from this fate (or worse), so I came to understand why it wasn’t a laughing matter to him.

My Dad also talked a lot about enjoying his down time in England, visiting “the great museums and universities” and condemning so many of his comrades in arms who spent their time off base “chasing skirts and drinking in the pubs!” Thank goodness he never asked me what I would have been doing.

I don’t recall the specific numbers from Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation,” but I recall generally the America he described that existed before the war. At least half of the country lived on farms and two-thirds went to the bathroom outside.

Our military was only the 33rd largest in the world. The remarkable mobilization and commitment of this generation in saving the world from the terrorism of Hitler and Mussolini and the Rising Sun, and then developing the path to the quality of life we have today, cannot be denied.

These recent thoughts made me think of the accomplishments of the Greatest Generation versus those of mine (the Baby Boomers) and the generations that have followed.

The Greatest Generation gave us President John F. Kennedy and Rev. Billy Graham, the Baby Boomers gave the world Senator Al Franken and the Rev. Jim Jones. They gave us Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, we gave the world Tiny Tim and Rosanne.

They gave us neighborhoods and sandlot baseball, we came up with gated communities and participation trophies. They gave us hard work and family values; we gave the four-day workweek and the sexual revolution. They gave us the corner drug, we offered up head shops.

You get my drift. Their lives were forged from hardscrabble upbringings and a desperate war that eventually led to the most prosperous society the world has ever known. Certainly they weren’t perfect, and no one should ignore the many problems we still face, but no one can deny the contributions of the Greatest Generation. They went from valiant soldiers and home front heroes to solid citizens and responsible leaders.

The other night I was listening to a recording of one of my favorite poets, Jimmy Buffett. On this album, he was opening a concert a few years ago by saying “you are in the right place if you have a Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan complex, if you never ever want to grow up.”

Many of my generation have had that option, of not growing up. The WWII generation did not have that choice. They had to grow up, way too young. As they fade into history, we should acknowledge that we could all stand to have a little more of their strength of character and mettle in us.

Evans “Buddy” King grew up in Christiansburg and graduated from CHS in 1971. He lives in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he practices law with the firm of Steptoe and Johnson PLLC.