This Memorial Day, I would like to reflect upon those Americans who served their country during World War II, called the "Greatest Generation." These are the special group of Americans whose lives and patriotic commitment will forever serve as the yardstick to measure the accomplishments of all generations that follow.
Even the sports stars of the period, such as boxer Joe Louis and baseball's Ted Williams put their stellar careers on hold to join the fight. You won't ever see that happening again.
For the younger among you, these are your grandparents or great grandparents who fought or worked in the factories to support the war. For me, it is my dad and mom — William (Bill) and Opal Rogers from Perry County.
Their generation spent much of their childhood during the Great Depression, in times so tough they defy modern comprehension. Then the call came for them to serve and sacrifice for the American war effort, which many did voluntarily after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dad signed up at the age of 17, lying to get in the Army. My mom took a job with her sisters in Cincinnati, making M1 rifles and sharing a small apartment where they worked and slept in shifts. Till then, she had never been out of the mountains.
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This generation had came straight from the school of hard knocks. In fact, when you consider the sacrifices of the women who worked the factories, their story is just as amazing as the men who fought the war.
Prior to WWII, women did not work industrial or factory jobs, especially those from rural areas. Yet they quickly learned how to operate machinery that would build the equipment necessary for victory. The whole economy of America was transformed forever, and the young women who worked the factories during that time deserve most of the credit.
My folks married right before dad went off to Europe. In their wedding picture, taken during his last furlough before shipping off to Europe in 1944, their youth is striking. They look almost scared. I guess they were concerned dad might not be coming back, which could have easily been the case.
My father won two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, two Unit Citations and some other medals with L Company of the 18th Regiment of the 1st Division. He was nominated for the Silver Star for being the first American GI scout into Bonn, Germany. He was assigned to the position of lead scout, since he could hike the woods in silence, run fast, shoot straight and knew how to read the maps needed to call in artillery accurately.
Being raised in the coal mines around Blue Diamond and having hunted since a child gave one few advantages in life; but knowing how to read a map, stalk game and shoot straight were a few of them. He often told me that going across the bridge into Bonn was the fastest he had ever run in his life. Being on the other side of the bridge alone, he had to call in artillery virtually on top of himself to survive until the rest of his company could advance.
Dad obviously didn't care about getting his Silver Star, since he never made a single call or request to the Veterans Administration to have it awarded. I didn't even know he had received a battlefield commission to corporal until he died and his military marker arrived. He just didn't care about such things. Out of 120 originals in L Company, he was one of only three to make it back home.
Having gotten wounded near the end of the war, he received his Purple Heart and remained in Germany until 1946 as the Marshall Plan was implemented to rebuild Europe. The German civilians were mostly good people, he said, they just suffered from being ruled by fanatical Nazis. They were just as grateful to be liberated as the rest of Europe was. He worked over there for another year after the war, then he came home to raise a family, learned steel working on the GI Bill, moved to Detroit and became a construction foreman building skyscrapers and bridges over Interstate 75.
He literally helped to build the country he had fought to defend after helping to rebuild the country he had fought against.
While today's military get media coverage when they leave and return home (and justly so), there was nobody at the Hazard train station when he came home in 1946 but mom and my oldest sister. And I'm sure that was all he wanted. He carried a set of gold teaspoons taken from a castle in Belgium in his pack all across Europe just to bring them home and give to mom. They were married 54 years and died within months of each other. Neither asked for any recognition for their sacrifice and service.
By the time the World War II Memorial in Washington opened in 1998, my dad had passed away; he never even got to see a picture of it. Dad never showed off his medals, talked about the war or went to the VFW club to meet other veterans. I think he did what he could to try to forget the war; some of the stories he told me about combat defy anything seen in movies.
There is nothing in this world that my, or any other generation, could possibly accomplish that compares to the service he and the millions of others from his generation gave to America. If you are lucky enough to have some of these folks still living in your family, tell them just how great they are and how much they still mean to this country.
Happy Memorial Day, mom, dad and the rest of the Greatest Generation. Your courage and sacrifice has made a better life for all Americans, today and forever.