“The Great­est Gen­er­a­tion”

Flight Journal - - 10 AVIATION MYTHS OF WORLD WAR II -

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...

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)

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