A generation that preserved liberty

July 03, 1998|By Stephen E. Ambrose

THEY were an extraordinary generation of Americans, the men and women of World War II. They won the war, planned for postwar peace and led the country through the second half of this century. They were children of the Depression, tempered by hardship but imbued with ideals of service and sacrifice. Some had fathers who had gone to France with Gen. John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force, to fight a war some said was to make the world safe for democracy. But with the onset of a second, more horrible world war, their generation was forced to fight to uphold American ideals.

Sixteen million people went into uniform. Millions more supported them on the home front. At the end of the war, having seen enough blood and destruction, America's war generation wanted build rather than destroy. Many went to college or bought homes under the provisions of the GI Bill. They were creators and problem solvers. They built the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Interstate Highway System and the modern corporation. They defeated polio and other dreaded diseases and made revolutionary advances in medicine, technology, education and public policy.

They were successful because of what they learned in the war: the value of teamwork, initiative, self discipline and national unity. Above all, they learned responsibility. War forced life and death decisions on young men who became responsible for ships, planes, tanks and, ultimately, one another. The overpowering image conveyed in pictures of the war generation on their way to battle is youth. Even more haunting is the "old age" look of those who survived battle, "the thousand-yard stare."

Women excelled at the new roles offered by the war. As the country's industry fed the American, British, Chinese and Russian war efforts and as America became the "arsenal of democracy," the work of women in ammunition factories, shipyards and aircraft and tank assembly lines helped make the final victory possible.

More than a third of a million women also went into uniform to free men for combat assignments. Ferrying aircraft and serving as nurses in combat field hospitals brought danger. Many women made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Peace keeping

This generation heeded the lessons of war. Abandoning the isolationism that made the war possible, America took responsibility for keeping the peace. They supported the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, stopped aggression in Berlin in 1948 and fought to prevent South Korea's seizure in 1950. Holding firm for 50 years in Europe, the torch of freedom passed by the World War II generation guaranteed the longest period of uninterrupted peace in European history.

Perhaps the greatest gift the World War II generation gave us was hope. In a world of fear and hunger, in a world that had just witnessed the first use of atomic bombs and where communism was on the march, in a world in which the chief legacy of science and technology was destruction -- in such a world, it was impossible to believe in progress. But progress is what the generation gave us.

Today, the World War II generation is leaving us at the rate of a thousand a day. The generation that gave so much to America and to the world, is quietly receding into the pages of history.

Twelve years ago, one of this group asked, "Why isn't there a national World War II Memorial?" Remarkably, both houses of Congress had forgotten to remember their own service or their comrades. Having done so much, they asked for no recognition. Only recently, with legislation passed for a national site of remembrance did they square the account.

It's time to recognize this unique generation of Americans. A National World War II Memorial planned for the Mall in Washington is long overdue. It will honor the men and women who served in the armed forces and on the home front. It will keep alive the memory and spirit of their sacrifices. The memorial's message is not just a remembrance of past sacrifices. It is a reminder to future generations that the torch of freedom is now theirs to carry, that the patriotism, unity and responsibility of the war generation cannot be relegated to stone and mortar merely to remember, but that these are values to nourish and maintain in each generation.

A fitting memorial

When President Clinton dedicated the site on Veterans Day, 1995, he affirmed America's intention to establish a place of remembrance on the national Mall. The National World War II Memorial, planned for the Rainbow Pool site, will fulfill that pledge. With its design now scheduled for review, no more fitting tribute or more appropriate a reminder of America's war generation could grace the capital. For 12 years that has been our hope. It is time the plans move ahead.

Stephen E. Ambrose is a historian and author of several books, including eight books on World War II.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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