Thank a veteran of the Greatest Generation — before it is too late

9 November 2023

Generational naming began in the early 1900s and collectively describes people born within a recognized time period — usually 20 years or so — and how each generation’s characteristics and shared values leave its mark on culture. According to the World Economic Forum and Visual Capitalist’s Generational Power Index Report (2021), Generation X, millennials and baby boomers hold the most cultural firepower today. The report included two other generations: the Silent Generation for those 76 years and older and Generation Z, those 9 to 24 years old.

There was one generation sorely missing from the report: the Greatest Generation.

Widely recognized as those born between 1901 and 1924, members of the Greatest Generation came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, two cataclysmic world events that thankfully have been unmatched since. It is hard to fathom living through a massive depression with no safety nets, followed by a world war resulting in 400,000 American lives lost and deaths in the tens of millions worldwide. 

To add additional perspective to the monumental human sacrifice made in WWII, as America rushed to manufacture hundreds of thousands of airplanes, some records show 15,000 pilots and crew members were killed in stateside flight training exercises from 1939-45. The scale of the war effort was unprecedented, as was the sense of pride, duty and patriotism.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 119,000 of the 16.1 million Americans who served in WWII are alive today. In Nevada, there are approximately 1,200 WWII veterans. That number will dwindle to 500 in a couple of years. By the beginning of the next decade, some 70 Nevadans are expected to be alive to recount first-hand their experiences in WWII. The clock is ticking fast on the Greatest Generation. 

My father was a WWII veteran and I vividly remember talking with him one day late in his life — he passed away in 2015 — about a near-death experience he had during the war. On the day, he recalled, he was stationed on a destroyer and a thick fog layer was all that stood between the naval fleet he was part of and squadrons of enemy bombers flying low overhead. Were it not for the fog, the naval fleet would have been decimated.

The memory, from some 65 years prior, brought tears to his eyes — to someone who did not cry much. For myself, who never served in the military let alone a war, it crystalized how the Greatest Generation put everything on the line to defend our country, in numbers that are hard to imagine. The mission and sense of duty were so clear. 

And then we have America today — a country divided on so many cultural fronts. We have seemingly lost our direction and sense of what is right and wrong, what is real and what is not real. With social media obscuring clear thinking, patriotism and a sense of duty are in short supply. Consider what is happening in the Middle East and how a lack of consensus about who are victims and who are perpetrators, let alone how any type of lasting peace can be achieved there, inhibits open dialog and true problem solving. The most recent flare-up in that volatile part of the world is yet another hot topic flaming new culture wars. I wonder what the Greatest Generation would think.

Veterans Day is a somber celebration of unity and pride. There are 16.2 million veterans in the U.S. and nearly 200,000 in Nevada, all with a story. They deserve the recognition due them, especially on Nov. 11. Thank all you can.

And if you have the good fortune to meet one, extend a special “thank-you” to a WWII veteran. Because soon enough, it will be too late.

Michael Raponi is a contributing columnist for The Nevada Independent and may be contacted at [email protected].

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