We were born into the worst years of the Great Depression and welcomed pass-me-down clothes, darned socks and shoes repaired multiple times by our Dads. We delivered newspapers in the early morning dark, shoveled snow for a dime and traded baseball cards, shooting marbles and “Dick Tracy” rings from Wheaties box tops. We didn’t ride to school on buses, and when we got there we joined in prayer and saluted the flag in every classroom. School lunch was something from home ( probably P,B n J or baloney sandwiches and a red apple) we carried in a tin lunch pail like our Dad’s, but smaller. We came home full of “the olde nik”, played in the streets, in the woods or on the sandlots until dark (or until Dad came after us with a switch.) We started with red hot water and “Ivory soap that floats” in the tub for the first guy but by the last one in it was “cold and gray” with broken pieces.
Our Dads worked hard and for long hours, six days a week while our Moms kept house and home together. We had lots of friends, and neighbors looking out for us, and aunts and uncles and cousins galore. We did not think we were poor! I felt lucky to have been born in America. And I thought about it a lot. My friend Pierre Poirot was from France, Ziggy Klausner whose father drove a locomotive, from Germany and Paul Glen from Ireland. I wouldn’t have changed heritage with anyone – even my own cousins in England, where bombs were already falling.
The day Pearl Harbor was bombed I was listening on the radio, and from that moment on I lived each day as an active participant. In fact I think of myself as a “child of World War II; it is in my blood, and I am of that generation even though too young to go. I collected scrap, ran obstacle courses, target-fired weekly, drilled with my high school friends, waited faithfully for letters from my Marine Corps brothers; bought Savings stamps and bonds, watched fighting ships come and go from New York’s busy harbor and fighters and bombers take off from Mitchell and Floyd Bennett fields.
We gladly weathered the inconvenience and dietary limitations of rationing and pinched budgets, getting by on 10 gallons of auto fuel a month, 35 mph speed limits, blown tires that had to be patched or abandoned, and watching the number of gold stars in neighbors’ windows grow in number; getting word that Junior LagGande was missing on a training flight in the Cascades and Jackie Mueller had lost a leg in Africa.
Then it was all over: VE Day, then VJ Day, and good-looking cars started to flow out of Detroit, and America was ready for good times again. Then, just as I and millions of other young men ready for higher education or jobs in the real world were leaving high school, the unfinished business of WWII began to come home to haunt us. In fact history will eventually agree with my personal belief that The Second World War did not end in 1945, but just took a rest while the Chinese repossessed the hardware of war the Allies conveniently left stacked and ready for them to appropriate, and Communist regimes moved across Europe as we and our docile “friends” signed mindless treaties and “giveaways” in the name of “peace and friendship”.
Then those of us who thought we had “lost our chance” to fight in the “Big” war got the call to a faraway land called Korea and we went by the tens and then hundreds of thousands, occupying old tar-paper training barracks and left-over uniforms; left-over everything including M-1s and carbines with rusted firing pins. We drove 1942 Ford-built jeeps (which turned out to be superior to the largely-deficient Willys which replaced them.) We rode to war in “moth-balled” Liberty ships quickly returned to service, and ate “C” and “K” rations of uncertain antiquity in the field. We learned that none of our 6X6s and “weapos” had been winterized, that a “10-second” hand grenade better be thrown before the count of 3, and that .50 cal. ammo. supplies limited us to 10 “test” rounds a day. (In my Air Force outfit we traded a surplus of ammo. for desperately-needed concertina wire to protect ground facilities from infiltrators.)
The zippers on our sleeping bags froze shut trapping our guys for night bayonet attacks, and the firing rate of cheap communist “burp guns” out-stripped anything we had for two years. We flew close-up air support with leftover P-51 “Mustangs” and F-4U “Corsairs” – which turned out to be a “blessing” compared to the new F-80 “Shooting Stars” which lacked diving brakes and accuracy (and with whose help my outfit bombed itself; twice.)
With a lot of experienced leadership from our senior NCOs who were mostly “big war” veterans, our guys fought bravely and well, eventually routing the invaders and saving today’s Republic of Korea (South) for its 43 million residents, an anchor of democratic capitalism in East Asia, from godless Communism.
Proud of what our big brothers had done before us, and aware that the folks at home were not exactly rolling in the aisles with applause for us, we became the Quiet Generation. Our casualties per month of warfare were higher than those of any other American conflict since the Civil War, and our war was one we actually WON! What a novel outcome!
I’m fiercely proud of every living (and gone) Korean veteran, and I for one of them refuse to be quiet when I see high school graduates (and college-age contemporaries) who don’t even know about that bloody struggle for human freedom. And I will have you know that we too are dues-paying members of “the greatest generation!”