The American Legion Magazine
September 2001
By Alan W. Dowd

            “The generation which is going off stage,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1799, “has arrested the course of despotism which has overwhelmed the world for thousands and thousands of years.”

            Jefferson’s reflection on the men and women who forged this nation could just as well have been written today, as construction of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., moves into high gear. In erecting this monument, the country is finally paying tribute in granite and bronze to the generation of Americans who rose to defend freedom in its darkest hour.

A Long Shadow. If you believe, as Jefferson did, that people shape history – not the other way around – then it’s difficult to call the men and women who fought World War II anything but the greatest generation. Even though most of them have passed away and those who survive are in their 70s and 80s, we still live in their shadow. And it may always be that way. What they did on the field of battle is matched only by what they achieved in peace.

“Since this country was founded,” observed John F. Kennedy, the first member the World War II generation to serve as president, “each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.” No generation before or since was summoned so often or answered so resolutely as his generation.

            Raised during the Depression, they had to grow up fast. Many of them didn’t know the carefree days of childhood. Instead, they worked. They watched worry and strain crush their mothers. They watched dust storms and stock-market crashes humble their fathers, impoverish their families and dash their own dreams of independence.

Then, as the Depression receded and adulthood arrived, the world staggered back to war. The World War II generation wouldn’t be granted the luxury of contemplating what to do after high school – “finding yourself” wasn’t an option. The country called, and the generation that grew up too fast marched off to Africa and Europe and the Pacific’s mosaic of islands and reefs, dutifully paying in blood for another generation’s mistakes.

At home, the wives and sweethearts and sisters of America’s fighting men formed their own army – 14.1 million strong – that fueled America’s war factories. They would be as critical to the war effort as the men in uniform. As British general J.F.C. Fuller said, “For the first time in the history of war, battles were as much tussles between competing factories as between contending armies.”

In 1938, the United States had virtually no defense industries. By 1943, America’s wartime industries were churning out two times as many weapons as Germany and Japan combined. The productive capacity was nothing less than jaw-dropping – 24,000 tanks in a single year, 4,000 planes a month, a new ship every 10.3 hours!

America and the world are lucky these twin tasks of war-fighting and arsenal-building didn’t fall to another generation. In 1998, Americans could barely sit through Saving Private Ryan – a pale imitation of the hell my grandfathers endured on D-Day. Merely living through the war is truly unimaginable a half-century later:

The war scarred nearly every continent. At its height, 110 million people took up arms; 16 million of them were Americans. All told, 61 million people died during the war; over half of them were civilians. And 407,318 Americans never returned from the front. Only the Civil War claimed more of America’s sons.

The individual battles and invasions are no less sobering. 5,000 Allies were killed in a matter of hours taking back Normandy. Some 200,000 people died on Okinawa alone. A million men fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In just 30 days, it claimed 70,000 American casualties.

A 1944 issue of Time magazine provides a window on the carnage. The Allied soldier, wrote Time, “died in Tunis, on Tarawa, at Salerno, on the blood-soaked fields around Kiev. He lost his face, his limbs and his mind before flame-throwers, in the cockpits of blazing planes, in the insane shadows of the jungle.”

The war and its carnage mercifully ended at the Elbe River and on the Missouri, but the world was only half-free. As world war gave way to cold war, the veterans of Normandy and Iwo Jima were summoned again – this time “to bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle,” in the stirring words of Kennedy’s inaugural. Without protest or dissent, they humbly accepted the challenge. They saw this return to duty not as a chore, but as a privilege. “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other generation,” the young president intoned, giving voice to the generation that had vanquished fascism and rescued freedom.

Drafted into that struggle for freedom as teenagers and twenty-somethings, they made a conscious decision to continue it as adults. And again, it is our good fortune that the decision was left to them rather than someone else. Their willingness to serve and sacrifice again grew from a patriotism that many of their children would scorn and many more of their grandchildren would never understand. With their blood and sweat and treasure and ingenuity, they built what came to be called “The American Century” – an era when America finally accepted the mantle of global leadership it had so often refused, an era that has yet to close.

They entered middle age holding back Moscow’s Iron Curtain. And as their hair turned silver, they fittingly tore down that curtain and liberated the other half of Europe. Never forget that the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed while one of their own sat in the Oval Office. Unlike their elders, they would not leave their unfinished business to another generation.

Better Late Than Never. For these and so many other reasons, this memorial is theirs. And the recognition it brings is long-overdue.

As Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, notes, “This generation of Americans never asked America for anything. It is now time for us to honor their life of contributions.” In fact, time is quickly running out: Only six million men and women from the World War II generation are alive today. They are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. By the time the memorial is complete in late 2002 or early 2003, more than a million more will be gone.

But America is racing to set things right. States, cities, corporations, the Legion and its Posts, and even school children have chipped in $92 million in support of the $100-million memorial. Spearheaded by World War II veteran Bob Dole, the massive fundraising campaign includes not a penny in federal tax dollars – something Dole is deeply proud of. Throughout his stewardship of the fundraising drive, Dole adamantly opposed efforts in Congress to appropriate money for the memorial. “If we can win World War II,” he said during the Legion’s Washington Conference in March, “we certainly can raise $100 million in the private sector.” 

The donations will be well spent. Nestled between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, the new memorial will sit on the National Mall. Together, the trio of monuments will call to mind the most critical moments in American history – the founding and revolution represented by Washington, the internal struggle over slavery represented by Lincoln and the defeat of fascism represented by World War II.

Hailed as “elegantly simple,” Friedrich St. Florian’s design includes a “Light of Freedom” rising from the Mall’s Reflecting Pool; 56 pillars evoking the wartime unity of America’s states and territories; and a “Freedom Wall,” which according to the memorial’s planners will recognize “the sacrifice of America’s World War II generation, the contribution of our Allies and the suffering of all humankind.”

Reluctant Heroes. Some wonder why it took so long to build a World War II memorial. It wasn’t until 1987, when Kaptur introduced legislation clearing the way for the memorial, that the idea even got a second thought on Capitol Hill. And another decade would pass before the memorial cleared the usual bureaucratic and legislative hurdles. And so the question remains: Why did more than half-a-century pass before we honored the sacrifice of those who fell and the lives of those who survived?

            The answer may be as simple as the character of the men and women who comprise the World War II generation: They are humble, too humble to demand recognition for what they accomplished in 1945, too humble to whine about the years and limbs they left on foreign shores, too humble to obsess over the nightmares they brought back. They saw what they did and kept doing as a duty, not a choice. Embodying that humility and sense of service, Dole himself has argued, “This memorial is not for us – it’s for those who come after us.”

            In typical fashion, Dole’s generation of reluctant heroes, the generation that saved the world, shuns the spotlight again – even as the stage empties for their curtain call.