Character Lessons From the Greatest Generation

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Character Lessons From the Greatest Generation

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It’s been more than a decade since renowned NBC newsman Tom Brokaw published The Greatest Generation, his tribute to the generation of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and carried the nation through World War II.

Inspired by the veterans he met June 6, 1994, at the 50th anniversary celebration of D-Day, he interviewed dozens of them all across the country. The more he talked with them, the more convinced he became that they possessed qualities of character seldom seen in any other generation of Americans.

During the Depression, an era largely devoid of today’s social service network, Americans knew that to survive they had to depend on their families.

Not many of them are left. The youngest are in their mid-80s, and they are dying at the rate of more than 8,000 per week. Most now live in nursing homes or with their children. Their voices are nearly stilled, but the lessons of their lives shine as beacons for today’s generations that often find their values odd or old-fashioned.

To say these men and women were remarkable is to put it lightly. By the time they became young children, the prosperity and optimism that prevailed at the end of World War I, when they were born, was gone, replaced by the harsh economic realities of the Great Depression.

As they were becoming young men and women, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ensured America’s entry into World War II. In defense of freedom and democracy, that war would demand the best the young men and women of this generation had to offer. When the nation needed commitment, honor, sacrifice and courage, they responded in the millions. And when the war was over, they used those same character traits to build postwar America into the world’s greatest national power.

What traits made them “the greatest generation”? Let’s examine a few.

A sense of responsibility

Childhood should be a time of fun and learning, free from the responsibilities of adulthood. But for millions of them, as children of the Great Depression, life was difficult. Adult responsibilities came early. By age 14 or 15, many young men were working to help support families that might include eight to 10 siblings.

As Brokaw points out, it bred into the men and women of that generation a sense of responsibility that served them well a few years later when the war broke out. They were of course appalled later on when long-held values changed, when they would look on their children and grandchildren and see a totally different attitude.

Wesley Ko epitomized that sense of responsibility. A gifted young Chinese-American who grew up in Philadelphia, Ko’s preacher father could not afford to send his son to college. While still a teen, Ko went to work in a local printing shop where, after Pearl Harbor, his boss appreciated his work so much that he offered to get him a draft deferment.

But young Ko had a sense of patriotism and enlisted in the Army instead. He was sent to officer candidate school at Ft. Benning, Georgia, becoming a second lieutenant. Then came three years of almost continuous combat in North Africa, then Sicily, then Italy, followed by D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge before the war in Europe ended in May 1945.

After the war Ko returned to Philadelphia to start his own printing business with his brother and a friend. He married and raised a family. Life was good until 1985, when a series of government actions and some bad business decisions caused his printing business to fail.

At age 70, well past retirement age for most, Ko found himself almost a million dollars in debt. He could have declared bankruptcy but chose not to. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with declaring bankruptcy,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do, even though it would have been easier.”

In our day and age, when many Americans declare bankruptcy at the drop of a hat, we should be inspired by such an example.

World War II took a terrible toll in lives. Some 294,000 young Americans never came back from far-flung battlefields. It also left in its wake some 1.7 million U.S. soldiers who came back with every imaginable disability.

Tom Broderick was one of them. Part of the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne division, September 1944 found Broderick in combat in the Netherlands. One day he made the mistake of standing too high in a foxhole. From several hundred yards away, a German marksman sent a bullet through Broderick’s temple. Though he recovered, the damage to his brain left him blind.

Gripped by self-pity, he lost the will to move on with his life. Why had God let this happen to him, he wondered. But then he prayed for a miracle. “If I can’t have my eyesight back,” he asked God, “could you find a girl for me to marry?” God did not answer immediately, but several years later he met and married a wonderful woman who would be his partner for life.

Tom got hold of himself, learned Braille and studied the insurance field. He learned he had a head for business, and by the early 1950s established his own insurance agency. Over the years the agency grew. Tom and his wife Eileen became prosperous. Their family grew to seven children, and Tom became a respected member of his community.

Broderick did not blame the world for the loss of his eyesight. He knew it was his fault for standing too high in the foxhole. He took responsibility for his actions and for his life. He realized he made a life-changing mistake, but nevertheless he could move on from that mistake.

Many observers of contemporary America have observed our lack of personal responsibility. Our culture often says, “It’s not my fault.” It’s all too easy to blame others when life’s train gets derailed.

Some members of the legal profession thrive on this. Brokaw relates the true story of a father whose son was accidentally killed while at a friend’s house. It seems his son’s friend found a gun and, not knowing it was loaded, pointed it at him and pulled the trigger. The father sued the gun manufacturer. But whose responsibility was it that a boy was dead? The answer should be obvious.

Commitment to marriage and family

Historians, sociologists and other observers have long recognized that strong families are the basis of strong societies. Decades ago, famed historian Edward Gibbon wrote that a major cause of the demise of the Roman Empire was the breakdown of the family. No one had to teach this to the greatest generation; they knew it intuitively. The 1920s and 30s were a time of large families, strong families by today’s standards.

These families stayed together. Of course, they had to during the Depression. In an era largely devoid of today’s extensive social service network, Americans knew that to survive they had to depend on their families.

Lloyd Kilmer remembered the early 1930s growing up on a farm in Minnesota. When his father lost his farm in bankruptcy, the family moved to the nearby town of Stewartville. Everyone in the family went to work wherever they could. Lloyd sold newspapers and sacked groceries to help out with the family finances. He avoided wearing shoes in the summer so he could have a pair in the winter.

In millions of cases, when a young married man went off to war, his bride moved in with her parents or his parents. Grandparents helped raise the children, providing love, training and discipline. And should that dreaded knock at the door come, telling a young wife that her husband had been killed in action, she was still truly part of a larger family.

Such was the case of Jeanette Gagne. Her husband Camille, a native of Quebec, was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. That Western Union telegram shattered her whole existence. For several years, until she remarried, it was her family that provided emotional support and helped her raise her infant son Robert.

To the greatest generation, divorce was a serious matter, almost scandalous. Unlike today, marriage was not a “trial run” to see if it might work out. Brokaw writes of Scottie Lingelbach, whose husband Dale died of melanoma at an early age. She never remarried but laments the divorce of her daughter: “Never did I realize it would happen in my family. Divorce was so uncommon.”

She voiced concerns about the downward drift of families: “What concerns me most about the future is the breakdown of the family. We were willing to make sacrifices so that I could stay home with the children. Now couples both work so they can be more affluent. We would rather delay gratification to ensure that our children had a nice home environment.”

Typical of that generation were John and Peggy Assenzio. They married a month after Pearl Harbor, but had known each other as children growing up in Brooklyn. Trained as a medic, he was assigned to the 118th Combat Engineers and sent to the Pacific Theater to become part of General Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping push towards Japan.

John saw combat up close—saw men get blown up, arms and legs fly through the air, and often had to wipe the blood from his face. It was a horrifying experience, and it stayed with him for life.

After the war, John went back to Brooklyn and picked up where life left off for him and Peggy in 1942. They wanted a family, and they had two sons. John went back to his old job as a salesman for an import-export firm. But he would often have terrible nightmares; he would thrash around in his sleep, knocking over lamps and shouting. Always Peggy would be there, offering comfort and peace. Despite frequent disagreements, their marriage grew stronger with the passing years.

They, too, bemoan the fact that divorce has become commonplace. Couples these days “don’t fight long enough,” says Peggy. “It’s too easy to get a divorce. We’ve had our arguments, but we don’t give up. When my friends ask whether I ever considered divorce I remind them of the old saying ‘We’ve thought about killing each other, but divorce? Never.’”

A strong work ethic

As Brokaw points out, Americans of that generation knew what it was like to work hard. Although the industrial revolution was far advanced by the early 1930s, America at that time was still much more of an agrarian nation than it is today. Millions lived on farms, and were used to work that went from dawn to dusk, work that was very physical and mostly outdoors. The callused hand was a badge of honor, the proud mark of a hard-working man or woman.

But most Americans toiled in factories, mills and mines at work that could be just as physically demanding. Hardly the clean, highly automated environments of today, Depression-era factories were often noisy, dirty and hot. Steel mill temperatures could easily reach 135 degrees in the summer.

In an era before today’s safety regulations, factory work could be dangerous, with unique ways to suffer serious injury or death. A drop of 2,000-degree molten steel could burn right through a hand. Dozens could be killed at once if methane gas exploded in a coal mine.

After Pearl Harbor, the nation mobilized for an all-out effort. It was perhaps the proudest time of American history. The ramp-up to war energized an economy that, more than a decade after the stock market crash of October 1929, had still not fully recovered from the Depression.

With the return of industrial jobs that paid good wages, working men by the thousands streamed into the factories of America. Those good wages were welcome, but there was something else to work for—victory. Victory over one power that had blindsided the United States, and another whose evil ideology sought to enslave the world. Every tank, gun and airplane that rolled off the assembly line was another nail in the coffin of totalitarian tyranny.

Charles Briscoe grew up the son of an itinerant farmer who moved from place to place across the Great Plains. He remembered the Dust Bowl years, when dust storms would blow up quickly, reducing visibility to a few yards while forcing people to breath through handkerchiefs. As he grew, Briscoe discovered he had a knack for mechanical work. Asked by a neighbor to help repair a John Deere tractor, he got the parts and rebuilt the engine—never having worked on one before.

After completing high school, Charles enrolled in a school for sheet-metal work, a relatively new trade at the time. In 1940 he moved to Wichita, Kansas, to work for the Stearman Division of Boeing. He did not know it at the time, but he would be in the right place at the right time to help with development of the B-29 Superfortress, America’s first truly long range bomber—the bomber that could reach Japan.

The mission was urgent. Years later he recalled, “We worked seven days a week, often twelve to fourteen hours a day.” Boeing, it was said, tried to find farm boys like Charles, who were used to working long hours, and who also were inventive and resourceful.

And then there was “Rosie the Riveter.” With millions of men in uniform and America needing vast industrial output, there was only one solution. By the hundreds of thousands, the women of America put on coveralls, picked up the hammers and wrenches the men had left when they enlisted, and learned to perform the industrial jobs they never dreamed they could do. By 1943, it was largely through their efforts that America became “the Arsenal of Democracy.”

By the time Dorothy Haener graduated from high school in Michigan in 1942, the Ford Motor Company plant in nearby Willow Run had converted from making cars to making B-24 bombers. She got a job as a parts inspector, working nine hours a day, six days a week.

“I had always expected to get married and raise a family . . . that’s the way I was raised,” she said. She learned she could be independent; she was proud of her work. Like so many women in those circumstances, work gave her a sense of empowerment. She later became active in the United Auto Workers, where she held several leadership roles.

Faith in God and the future

Current polls show a continuing decline in church membership and religious observance. According to recent public opinion polls, less than half of Americans today register any serious religious belief. It seems God is increasingly out of the picture for many.

America of the 1930s and 1940s was a much more religious nation. A belief in God helped get many struggling people through the Great Depression. That same belief sustained soldiers fighting on far-off battlefields. When Army chaplains held religious services, they were normally well attended.

On the home front, millions of prayers went up as wives, sweethearts, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters prayed for the safe return of their loved ones in uniform. And if they did not return, families relied on God and their faith for the strength to bear the grief and continue on in life.

Such was the case for Helen Van Gorder. Her husband Charles, an Army surgeon with the rank of captain, had volunteered for a special D-Day assignment. He would be part of a two-man surgical team attached to the 101st Airborne Division. They would set up medical/surgical units right in the middle of the fighting instead of behind Allied lines.

They were in the thick of fighting right through the Battle of the Bulge. It was during that epic battle that Charles and another doctor were taken prisoner. In all, through his harrowing experiences as a POW doctor and in escaping from a POW camp on the Russian-Polish border, Charles Van Gorder was gone for 30 straight months.

Back home Helen gave birth to their first son, Rod, who died shortly after birth. She continued to work as a nurse. Her two brothers joined the army and were both killed in action. It was about this time that she learned Charles had been taken prisoner. It would seem Helen’s world was coming apart, yet her faith saw her through. “Since I was a little girl I’ve had trust in the Lord,” she said. “I had faith it would all work out.”

Hebrews 11:1 Hebrews 11:1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
American King James Version×
tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of thing not seen.” Helen Van Gorder believed that God was ultimately in charge of all human events and that regardless of the losses she endured there was a purpose to it all. Faith was the guiding principle of her life, as it must be for all of us.

The greatest generation wasn’t perfect. It produced its share of criminals and societal misfits. Yet the hardships, the trials of this tumultuous time in history, instilled in millions the character traits that helped produce some of the finest men and women in the nation’s history. But by and large, they were a generation that launched America’s modern greatness. We can learn so much from the character traits that made them this way!