“The Greatest Generation”
In 1998, reporter Tom Brokaw published his tribute to WW II’s victors as The Greatest Generation. That unsupportable claim has seldom if ever been publicly examined, yet it remains a reflexive phrase whenever the war is discussed.
Neither Brokaw nor apparently anyone else has bothered to define the criteria for “the greatest.” The most obvious “qualifications” were growing up in the Depression and winning WW II.
Yet the WW I generation raised the WW II crop and dealt with the Depression as adults. And however grim things seemed in 1941–42, the Axis never had a remote chance of defeating the Allies. The United States, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China outnumbered Germany, Japan, Italy, and their few acolytes between five and six to one—and outproduced them by something approaching infinity.
Yet there’s more. Anyone with a modicum
of historical knowledge and objectivity recognizes that the true “greatest generation” of Americans was represented by the Founders (more like two generations) during the Revolutionary War. They risked all—“Our lives, fortune and sacred honor”—in rebelling against the world’s greatest empire and fighting against enormous odds for eight years before achieving independence.
The next “greatest generation” was that of the pioneers who trekked westward on the Oregon Trail during the 1840s and ’50s, walking 2,000 miles alongside their wagons in a five-month life-or-death race against impending winter. As famed scout Kit Carson reputedly said, “The cowards never started, and the weak died on the way.” They made Manifest Destiny an historic reality.
It’s instructive that almost no survivors of WW II refer to themselves as “the greatest.”
The knee-jerk response largely comes from those born since the war. Let the ultimate statement come from leading Marine Corps ace Joe Foss, who mentored Brokaw when Foss was governor of South Dakota. Foss repeatedly said, “We weren’t ‘the greatest.’ We just did what we had to do.”
Right: Capt. Joe Foss epitomized the combat fighter pilot during WW II. Below: Marine ace Joe Foss, in a state-side FG-1 Corsair, was made commander of VMF-115 and moved to the Pacific in February 1944. Recipient of the Medal of Honor, he would often say that he was only doing his job. (Photos courtesy of Stan Piet)
Lt. Col. Francis Gabreski and ground crew displaying 27 victories on July 4, 1944. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
With 300 combat hours and 28 aerial victories, 61st Ftr. Sq. commander Francis Gabreski was scheduled for reassignment when he volunteered for one last mission that landed him in Stalag Luft I. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)