On this Memorial Day, some of us are remembering the last of the “greatest generation,” our parents or grandparents who lived through the Depression, served in World War II, married in war and came home to enjoy the peace while raising families in the prosperous, tumultuous, rapidly changing latter half of the 20th Century. Their numbers are declining rapidly, with most remaining members of the WWII generation now in their 80’s and 90’s. Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation” in a reverential tribute to the ways in which this extraordinary group of people showed resilience in economic hard times, courage in war, and creative spirit in building the postwar economy. Oh, and by the way, they gave birth to the Baby Boomers!
Typical of so many couples in World War II, Mom and Dad (that’s them in the photo above, their wedding day, May 4, 1943) had a brief courtship and then a quick marriage before he shipped out for the Philippines. Their “honeymoon” was spent in a mad post-wedding dash to New York where, sadly, Dad’s mother was dying. Their car broke down on the way, somewhere near midnight on the Pulaski Skyway. They stayed for the funeral, but he had orders to report to the Army base in Corvallis, Oregon, so they hopped back in the car and drove across the country — all of this at a time before the interstate highway system, so all of these drives meant “back roads” in sketchy conditions, in a car that, ahem, “needed some work” most of the time. They parted company in Oregon, this young Irish boy who had never traveled now heading to jungles in the South Pacific, leaving the young Italian girl to make new friends in a strange place 3,000 miles from home. (Theirs was, by the way, a “mixed marriage” in the eyes of their families, this Irish-Italian thing attracting skeptics on both sides!)
The amazing thing is that they figured it all out, they made it all work, and they did it without complaining or expecting other people to prop them up. Dad was a captain in the Army, leading platoons of guerrilla fighters in New Guinea, the Philippines and Guam. Typical of the millions of men who fought in World War II, when he came home he didn’t talk much about the war, and we kids only knew the parts he wanted to share — the military songs belted out loudly on our road trips, the military helmets and jackets we played with in the attic, and his love of movies about the war, preferably with John Wayne in the lead. (Mom was not too fond of those movies.)
Dad was quite the patriot, always making sure to hang the flag high on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and all of the other important days of remembrance and honor. His values were simple and straightforward: work hard, go to Church, be loyal to your country. Consequently, he was not a fan of the 1960’s and the leftie leanings of some of his children; as we got older (and mouthier) the dinner table debates could be somewhat jagged, but we were sure to let the king of our castle have the last word each night.
We may never know if he was really a casualty of the war, but the disease that killed him 35 years after he came back from the war has a higher incidence among veterans and residents of Guam. ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous Yankee who suffered the illness — claimed Dad at age 61, much too young.
Mom prominently displayed that wedding photo and a handsome portrait of Dad in his Captain’s uniform all through the next three decades, often reminiscing about how they met and what it was like to live through the war years. I realized, listening to her stories, that the women who stayed behind on the home front were also veterans in their own way, experiencing stresses and strangeness that they had never encountered before, and they emerged triumphant.
The years did not dim her memories, in fact, her ability to recall details of the war years grew even more pronounced in her final months as if she were giving a progressive last lecture on fortitude, persistence and the enduring nature of love. As we closed her apartment after she died midway through her 90th year this past January, we discovered a great treasure trove of their love letters from the war, boxes of photos and clippings, and other memorabilia that will keep our family busy for quite some time as we learn more about their amazing wartime experiences.
They’re together again, at long last, on this Memorial Day. Dad is probably getting ready to mix a batch of Manhattans and fire up the grill on some lawn in Paradise. They’re probably singing “Happy as the day when the Army gets its pay” when they’re not arguing about FDR or Nixon. Who knows, maybe those two will be at the barbecue, too — if you hear thunder, you’ll know that’s true!
Courageous men and women are still sacrificing their comfort, their precious time and their lives for our freedom. On this Memorial Day, let’s pay tribute once again to all veterans and their families, remembering in particular those who died for this country. And let’s remember in a special way the amazing veterans of the Greatest Generation! THANK YOU to all for making it possible for the rest of us to enjoy our freedoms!