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The Silent Generation Remembers

Joe Volz

June 4, 2004

They call us the Silent Generation. We were too young to go off to World War II with our fathers from the Greatest Generation or even with the older kids from the neighborhood.

We were just slightly too young for the Korean War.

By the time Vietnam erupted, we were too old. That was the Baby Boomers' war.

When we grew up in the '50s, we saw little to protest about. America was not engaged in any wars and, for some reason, we did not get heavily involved in the civil rights movement. All was quiet in our world. We saw no reason to take stands on political issues.

But, now that we are in our sixties - many of us retired -- perhaps it is time to speak.

Maybe, we should give ourselves a new name, "The Last Generation."

We are the last generation to have lived during World War II. Those who fought in the war are dying at an increasingly rapid rate - 1,200 a day now. They are mainly in their eighties.

Of the 16.3 million Americans who served during the war only 4 million are still alive.

The war killed 407,000 of their comrades.

Looking at the old warriors as they descended on the new World War II Memorial in Washington on Memorial Day, I realized that in a decade or less they will all be gone and my generation will be the last to have actually lived in those troubled times.

I was too young to enlist.

I was 10 when the war ended, but the young men in the neighborhood, in Maplewood, N.J., some just eight years older, went off to war. Alan Finn, survived the jungles of the South Pacific as a Marine and his older brother, Tom, slogged across Europe as an Army infantryman. Joe Nichols and his brother, Les, joined the Navy. They all came back safely.

But as a kid, I knew only the glories of war. I followed the campaigns on the maps printed every day in the paper. I wore a junior Navy officer's uniform to the shore. We kids played Americans vs. Germans or Japanese in our backyards. The Germans and Japanese replaced the Cowboy and Indian games. We American troops always won.

When Joe Nichols came home he gave me his Navy uniform, which we cut down a bit, and I wore that.

But Joe and Les and Alan and Tom did not talk about the horrors of war.

There was no TV. We didn't see the death. The Movietone News sanitized everything. We didn't know, for example, of the tremendous loss of life on the other side, far greater than our own - the millions of Germans and Japanese, civilians as well as soldiers, who perished.

And yet, with today's modern technology bringing war instantly into our living rooms, I wonder if my grandchildren, the same age as I was when World War II ended, understand war any better than I did.

I asked my straight-A-student grandson the other day what he knew about the Iraq conflict. "Nothing much," he said. "We are studying the Romans."

There is little patriotic fervor among today's school kids and the general populace. We had victory gardens - I remember my father almost burned down the neighborhood when we decided to incinerate last year's corn stalks.

We saved tin cans and bought war bonds in school at 10 cents per week. We were all told we had to make sacrifices on the homefront, too. Our boys were doing so much overseas.

For a variety of reasons, I don't feel that attitude today.

What can I tell my grandchildren and perhaps, someday, my great-grandchildren of those war years? Of course, I was not on the battlefield. Perhaps sexagenarians from another place - Germany or France or Japan or The Philippines - can tell the story so much better. The bombs fell on them.

Abe Lincoln said it best up the road at Gettysburg in 1863: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

I am sure he was talking about the dead on both sides of the conflict. At least I like to think that. And so should we think about "the enemy" who died in World War II and are dying now in the streets of Iraq.

So, for us, soon to be the only ones who remember World War II, perhaps we should resolve to keep the memories of war alive. Not to remember just the victories, but the losses - in that war and all wars.

War was a game for me as a child. I hope, in this age of computer games and TV, it does not become a game for my grandchildren.

E-mail Joe Volz at jvolz2003@adelphia.net

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