My Dad….And The Greatest Generation
by Stephen Doherty
“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” –Tom Brokaw
My father passed away twenty-one years ago but like most of us, the memory of who and what he was is visited upon me frequently through a variety of triggers-subtle and not so subtle. By any measure, his was an average life composed of simple pleasures and love of family. He never had much money but managed to save $300 for a little sail boat that became his lifelong love and passion. To watch his face navigating this small vessel around the tight confines of Denver’s Sloan’s Lake was akin to watching Magellan or Columbus scan the horizon for the new world. He didn’t have much but he didn’t need much. He also had something else-he was a member of “The Greatest Generation” of Americans who saved our planet from eternal darkness and indescribable evil.
In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in an act of such evil subterfuge and treachery that it came to define those words. All over America, the simple call went out asking who would step up and confront this global apocalypse of pending tyranny and oppression. Without hesitation, my father would join a generation of kids who would leave their paper routes and movie theater jobs and say goodbye to budding teenage romances with a resounding and defiant response, “I’LL GO!” Winston Churchill could barely contain his glee as he responded joyfully, “For the first night since this conflict began, I will sleep soundly and peacefully-comforted by the fact that the Americans are coming!”
In the ensuing months and years-these American “kids” would join the global fray and throw their support and lives behind battles that would become epic in the annals of history. Places they’d never heard of months earlier they would now remember forever in their shared commitment, sacrifice, and loss. Normandy, Iwo Jima, Guam, Berlin, and thousands of other cities and towns would be liberated by the American boys who became men in the years following Pearl Harbor. The death and destruction of WWII was of an incalculable magnitude-over 100 million men, women, and children killed. One can imagine, if only in our nightmares, what might have happened absent America’s commitment and sacrifice.
Perhaps as amazing as their collective battlefield exploits, was the Greatest Generation’s response to the war’s conclusion. Those that survived, came home and bought houses, went back to school, found jobs, and married and had families. For the most part, the horrors of their wartime experiences stayed locked-up in their memories and millions of unopened foot lockers collecting dust in attics all over America. They never spoke of it. We saw no ribbons or medals adorning walls in the family house–they were hidden away in the attic. Whatever horrors they warehoused in their collective minds would be their cross to bear-alone. For better or worse, this self-imposed blackout of their wartime experience would not see the light of day while they were alive.
As for my dad? He served in the Air Force in the Pacific Theater and made it home. He spoke little of the war or what he did during it, except for one thing. When we would attend ball games and the national anthem would play-my dad would struggle to his feet, put his hand over his heart, and sing along-with tears streaming down his face. When I was young, this open act of emotion would embarrass me. However, he would look down and smile with the kind of patience and empathy that can come only from a father as he must have been thinking to himself, “Someday, you’ll understand.”
That understanding came later in my life as I recognized that these moments were his tribute to fallen comrades who never made it home. I will be forever humbled by the necessary savagery and ferocity this generation brought to that horrible conflict coupled with the humility and gratefulness they brought home from it. I will forever be grateful that one of them was my father…
“In the final choice a soldier’s pack is not so heavy as a prisoner’s chains.”
–Dwight D. Eisenhower