Lessons From ‘The Greatest Generation’

May 23, 2017 2:25 pm

At 95, my dad is a WWII veteran, and he represents “ The Greatest Generation,” so labeled by journalist Tom Brokaw. This generation was born between 1900 and 1925. A Millennial friend recently asked me, “Why are they called ‘The Greatest Generation?’” This generation persevered through some of the most difficult times in our nation’s history: growing up in the shadow of the Great War (WWI) followed by the Great Depression, and then being thrust into WWII as they reached young adulthood. 

Dad was born on July 3, 1921, in Corvallis, Ore., and he grew up in Portland. He remembers working multiple odd jobs before and after school: making an agreement with a store owner to sweep the sidewalk in front of his store, working in the dairy during morning milking, selling newspapers, and pushing a lawnmower, all to earn a dime or something to eat. When the dairy driver started his morning rounds, dad hitched a ride to school. These were the years of the Great Depression, during which both of his parents worked: Granddad was part of a crew that moved houses (not the furnishings, the whole house), and grandmother worked in the shipyards. Dad continued to work until he finally retired at age 80. 

Today, in his 90s, he is frail, although he continues to manage his daily activities: getting dressed, going to the dining room for meals, riding his electric scooter to check his mailbox, and even going to church on Sundays, traveling there in the his living facility’s van. His short-term memory challenges him, but his long-term memory is intact; we are amazed at the detail he can remember from growing up in the 1930s and his years in the military, including his WWII experience in the South Pacific. 

He vividly recalls the day he met mom, telling us that she had come into the gas station where he worked with three of her nursing school classmates. Dad had a little midget racer parked on the lot, and he offered each of the girls a ride. They took him up on it, one at a time. The last girl in line was mom. Dad gave her twice the rides of the others. That evening, he went home and told his mother, “Today I met the girl I am going to marry.” That was in fall 1940, and they decided to get married on May 3, 1941. On the day they went to get their marriage license, the clerk asked dad his age, and he replied, “19.” This was when mom first learned his age; she was 21. Their marriage lasted 73 years, ending with mom’s death in 2014. 

Dad was serving in the Oregon National Guard and was due to be discharged on Dec. 8, 1941. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 swiftly changed his planned departure from the Guard to enlistment with the U.S. Army. Every young man signed on, and no one questioned the commitment to defending the country, which was now in the throes of WWII. After basic training, dad was deployed to the South Pacific. His division sailed on the Santa Maria, a former cruise liner turned into a barracks ship, from New York, through the Panama Canal, to the South Pacific.

The recent bestseller Killing of the Rising Sun has a footnote in the first chapter regarding a small Army division nicknamed the “Jungleers.” Dad was part of this group, which learned how to survive in the extreme heat and humidity of the jungle. Outnumbered by the enemy 10 to one, their ability to adapt to the jungle resulted in defeat of the enemy when they were least expected to do so.

My sister was born in 1942, part of the Silent Generation, also referred to as “The Traditionalists.” There are no precise dates for this generation, and references suggest they were born from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s. Although there were 50 million in this generation, they were seen but not heard, born too late to be war heroes and too soon to be part of the New Age Firebrands (Baby Boomers). Mom was newly pregnant when dad was deployed to the South Pacific. He did not receive the postcard announcing her birth on July 23 until Aug. 8. He met his first-born daughter, named Carol, when she was 3 years old. When he returned home, she was wary and unsure of him. After a week of him being home, she told mom, “Tell that man to go home.” 

Born in 1947, I was dad’s first “baby.” Baby Boomers were the byproduct of the end of WWII. The GIs came home, married their girls, bought little crackerbox houses, went to work, and made babies. Baby Boomers were born in 1946 to 1966. Skylar Werde wrote in 2015 about defining two subgroups within the Boomers: the early Boomers who were teens in the ‘60s, who were considered to be optimistic firebrands and ready to change the world, and the later Boomers were teens in the ‘70s and considered to be more competitive in nature. This later Boomer group is sometimes labeled “Generation Jones,” because they were “keepin’ up with the Joneses.”

Dad’s commitment to work translated into dropping out of high school at age 16 to work full-time to help support his family. Serving in the National Guard and the U.S. Army provided him with training as well as discipline, which he had in abundance. His first job out of the service was driving a bus for North Coast bus lines, later acquired by Greyhound. He did not think much of the pay cut when Greyhound acquired North Coast, so he went to work driving a truck for Consolidated Freightways. 

With two small children at home, he did not like being away overnight. His next job was driving a delivery truck for Davidson’s Bakery Sunbeam bread. Not only did he come home every night, he came home with bread, doughnuts, and other surplus items from the bakery.

Later, a friend at our church offered dad a job that required him to wear a jacket and tie, selling construction materials to contractors for commercial construction. On many Sunday afternoon drives, we would go past this building or that, where dad would tell us who built it and what type of building it was, ending with how much block or brick he had sold for the construction. In this role, he learned how to collect outstanding receivables as well.   

In 1973, dad bought his own business, selling block, brick, marble, and other construction materials to contractors. He sold the business in 1981, presumably to retire; in retirement, he sold paint at Sears, collected debt for a local agency, and held his final job as a night security guard in an insurance building.

In 2010, my husband traveled with dad as his guardian on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., which included meeting other WWII veterans. He toured the many memorials, culminating with the new World War II Memorial. This trip was a highlight for dad and my husband. They both wear their t-shirts with pride and recall the memories they made with the other veterans.

In mid-April, my sister and I agreed with the recommendation from the nursing director at dad’s assisted living facility to admit him to hospice to augment his care and ensure his comfort. The facility where dad lives is home to a shrinking population of the Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation didn’t complain; they survived, they overcame, and they succeeded.

Mary Lee DeCoster is a revenue cycle consultant from Phoenix.


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