I have read – and expect to continue to run into – some well-deserved editorial reminders that this year is the 75th, and likely the last numbered and remarked anniversary of that epochal episode known as World War Two, within whose embrace I experienced my crucial growing up years, and true to whose promise I lived out some of my country’s most crucial and foundational decades. For me and a fast-disappearing number like me it is the centrifugal and defining event of a lifetime. It fills the capacity of my memory cells so fully that virtually all other subjects are subordinate and related to it. Including – and perhaps especially – that three-year “diversion” we call Korea.
Yesterday a Vermont friend phoned to report that Jerry Thomas had passed away in a home-town nursing home. Jerry had been one of six of us who traveled to the Air Force Recruiting Station in Montpelier one December day in 1950. That original “six” represented one third of the boys in our high school graduating class and we chose to enter the U.S. Air force and take our basic training together. I fear I may be the last of that “spirited” bunch, with each of whom I had shared uncounted “cherry-cokes” at THE SPOT. In the following months, as the Korean War grew larger, most of the others followed in one Service branch or another. It was what our older brothers and cousins had done a few years earlier, and it was what we did. Like those predecessors we too had weathered the Great Depression, gotten by on less and witnessed everything World War II had brought to our 20th century door step. We were in every sense of that generation, and motivated by the same sense of brotherhood and patriotism. We were true “believers”.
In fact, it is worth pointing out that more than 400,000 of those of us who fought in Korea had also seen active service in WWII, including most field-grade officers and a preponderance of senior “non-coms”. (To our ever-lasting benefit.)
I think often of the world we came home to, and the unique nature of its shape and character; and of the unvarnished reality of our modest expectations. Married, with a young family and only a high school education, I had the good fortune to attract the attention of an Air Force Reserve senior officer who was a Vice President of Vermont’s most important business enterprise, and who recruited me into the most august of its departments - even without an advanced degree. There my similarly selected colleagues included Cal Haskell, a recently released Air Force Major and experienced senior command pilot, and Gordon Paterson who had served with the 82nd Airborne Division and who limped from a bad training injury. Gordon, a devoted Masters candidate became my business mentor and best friend. We shot competitively and wandered wild country together. (He became a senior staff member of the University of Vermont and is still a good friend.)
We were next joined by Lt. Clayton Jordan who came home from the Battle of the Bulge and Stalag Luft III – one of the most notorious of the worst Nazi prisons – as a proudly honored local hero. As a Sergeant who fought on with his last bullet after releasing his men to surrender he was awarded a “battlefield commission”. Clayton twice survived being sentenced to execution by firing squad by sheer audacity. He is perhaps the bravest man I have ever known. I also was assigned to work on a daily basis with a man named Glen Rice, my opposite number in our Dallas, Texas branch office. Glen had been taken prisoner in the fall of Manila back in 1941 and had survived the Bataan Death March. Crippled for life from his years of beatings and punishment by the Japanese, he never complained and felt honored to be working with the rest of us.
Each of us in our own personal variations, had watched our loved ones go off to war, rally behind a united cause, honor deeply-held values and convictions and remain true to our own personal sense of honor. We came from a generation or two that went to church, opened doors for ladies and pretty much stayed married once we got that way. We didn’t own a lot of Mutual Funds, but tried not to buy stuff we couldn’t afford. I know I am super “old fashioned”, but still write checks and don’t know feel deprived not knowing how to use an ATM machine. And I think I have lived in the very best generation; in perhaps the straightest generation.