I remember Pearl Harbor. Actually, it is probably my earliest memory. I was 7 at the time; much too young to appreciate the gravity of the event, but somehow, even then, it evoked a powerful awareness in me. I was listening to one of my favorite radio programs when the news flash came over. The shock to the country was immediate and frightening.
This was the catalyst for what Tom Brokaw would dub “The Greatest Generation.” These people were born in the late teens and early ’20s of the 20th century, of parents who had survived the “war to end all wars.” In their teens, when most youths dream of lofty goals and look forward to initiating their careers, they were met with the roadblocks of a devastating Depression and the desolation of the Dust Bowl.
Then, emerging with bright plans for the future, Pearl Harbor happened. By the thousands, the eligible enlisted with hopes of a quick victory. Those who were too old, too young or physically ineligible to serve mobilized on the home front. My mother, a housewife, found work in an airplane factory and joined the “Rosie the Riveter” ranks. My father, too old for the military, became the neighborhood air raid warden.
The nation mobilized with a pride and dedication never before seen in its history. Non-essential factories were converted to make war materials. Rationing was imposed and the country gladly saved the best of its food products for the military. We children saved our allowances and bought war bonds.
The war was the main topic of conversation, and the weekly news reels at the cinema were as popular as the main feature. Almost every home displayed the flag of a member in the service. Blue indicated a current serviceman; gold, the dreaded badge of a loved one lost. The president’s fireside chats on radio were never missed. News of each campaign, victory and defeat was met with anticipation.
Finally, the war heroes came home, settled into civilian life and raised the baby boomers. They lived through the Cold War, Korea, McCarthyism, the assassination of a president and the bloodshed of the civil rights movement.
They sent their sons off to Vietnam while the country was divided and reeling with demonstrations. They renewed their pride in their country with the space program and watched a man land on the moon. Watergate again shook their national faith. The Persian Gulf War gave them concern. As they settled into retirement, 9/11 shook their complacency, and they sent their grandchildren to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Today I see these seniors in nursing homes, hospital wards, assisted living facilities and, the lucky ones, still in their homes. Now in their late 80s and 90s, they are dying by the thousands. They were personal witnesses to some of this nation’s greatest triumphs and tragedies. They can remember life in its simpler form, and can testify to some of man’s most humane and inhumane experiences.
The tragedy is that soon their stories will be available only in history books. Gone will be the personal experiences, the “Yes, I was there, I remember that.” We have only a limited time to capture this national treasure. I urge the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these people to listen to their stories and preserve them in family biographies before they are lost.