By A. Bruce Rogers
Since this year marks the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War II, this Memorial Day is an ideal time to reflect on why Americans who served their country during World War II have come to be called the "Greatest Generation."
These are the special group 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 boxing's Joe Louis and baseball's Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams put their careers on hold to join the fight. Others worked in the factories to support the war.
For me, it is Mom and Dad, William (Bill) and Opal Rogers. 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, as young adults, to serve and sacrifice for the war effort, which many did voluntarily after Japan bombed of Pearl Harbor.
Dad signed up at the age of 17, lying to get in the Army and headed to Europe in 1944. 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 Kentucky mountains.
This generation had came straight from the school of hard knocks; they faced a world at war as adults and asked for nothing as recognition. In fact, when you consider the sacrifices of all the women who worked the factories, their story is just as amazing as the men who fought the war.
Prior to WWII, women, especially those from rural areas, 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 industrialized economy of America was transformed forever, and the young women who worked the factories deserve most of the credit.
Other than freeing the world, the best thing about World War II was that it gave opportunities for women and minorities to take their rightful places in the work force.
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. Being raised in the coal mines around Blue Diamond in Perry County, he knew how to read a map, hunt quietly and shoot straight.
Wounded near the end of the war, Dad remained in Germany until 1946, as Marshall Law was implemented to rebuild Europe. Out of 120 originals in L Company of the 18th Regiment of the 1st Division, he was one of only three to make it back home. He raised 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 America 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 but Mom and my oldest sister. And I'm sure they were all he wanted to see. He carried a set of gold teaspoons from a castle in Belgium in his pack all across Europe just to bring home to Mom. They were married 54 years and died within months of each other. Neither asked for any type of recognition for their sacrifice and service.
By the time the World War II Memorial in Washington opened in 1998, my Dad had passed away in June of that year; he never even got to see a picture of it.
There is nothing in this world that my or any other generation could possibly accomplish that compares to the service the Greatest Generation gave to America. The same opportunity will never come again and the mettle of subsequent generations just doesn't stack up. The mold was broken, as they say.
If by chance you are still lucky enough to know some of these folks who are still living, please tell them just how great they are and how much they still mean to this country.
A. Bruce Rogers is a Lexington geologist.