Last weekend, the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington was officially inaugurated. It honored all the veterans of the war. Tom Brokaw gave them the name "The Greatest Generation."
I hate to brag, but I was a member of this generation. How do I know this? Brokaw said it, and he is the second most trusted man on television.
I never claimed to be a hero. I cleaned guns and loaded bombs in a Marine fighter squadron in the central Pacific. It didn't matter because the folks at home didn't know what my job was and waved flags when I returned home.
Last weekend I thought about what made us the Greatest Generation. The first thing that came to mind is that we weren't trying to win the hearts of the German and Japanese people.
We knew our enemy and it was them.
The second thing is that we didn't question our leaders back home. We assumed President Franklin Roosevelt knew what he was doing and there were no polls at that time to prove otherwise. As far as I know, we didn't torture anyone. If there were a few bad apples in the services, I didn't personally know any. The other side resorted to these kinds of tactics, and that's why to this day they could never call themselves the Greatest Generation.
Another thing was, in those days we had the "draft." Those who got deferred from service could not claim greatness. But since it was a popular war, as opposed to Vietnam, there were no protests against it.
Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, as well as Stalin, were all fighting the same enemy. After the war, if you cheered for Stalin, you were dishonorably discharged from the Greatest Generation.
In Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," he used me as one of his examples. I was honored, as were the other people he included, like Andy Rooney, Ben Bradlee and former president George H.W. Bush. Instead of protesting, because the guys in my outfit would laugh if they read I was one of the "great" ones, I accepted Brokaw's inclusion. (I gave away 20 copies of his book, which I paid for, as my way of thanking him.)
Whenever my children gave me any lip, I told them, "You can't talk to me that way. I am a member of the Greatest Generation." If they asked me why, I would reply, "I dropped the bomb on Hiroshima." We all lied, but it was nothing compared with what our present commander in chief does.
When we came home from the war, we went to college, got jobs, married our sweethearts and, as Brokaw wrote, worked to achieve the American dream -- many of us on credit. Those who came back from the war claimed those were the best years of their lives.
Now we have a monument to remind us of how good we were. The president blessed it. Some cynical veterans say, "It was the political thing to do." I don't feel that way. He blessed the memorial because it was the American thing to do.
So, as a card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation, I expect to get some respect. I may not have earned it, but the monument is now part of my history, and that is what life is all about.
(c) 2004, Tribune Media Services