They won the greatest war in history, and not just on the battlefield.
They won Medals of Honors (many posthumously), Navy Crosses and Purple Hearts–but also E’s for Excellence from grateful Navy and War Departments for their efforts in America’s factories, plants, and shipyards.
Some wielded M-1 rifles, flew B-17's and B-29's, and sailed destroyers and aircraft carriers to victory. Others wielded rivet guns, welding torches, drill presses, wrenches, and slide rules to produce the weapons that made that victory possible.
We call them "America’s Greatest Generation,' the one that fought and won World War Two.
Every week we read their obituaries in our local papers, as they pass from our lives. But they live on in our gratitude and with the anniversaries of the battles of Midway and D-Day approaching, it seems a good time to remember not just who the Greatest Generation were, but what made them so great.
First, of course, there was the tremendous courage and sheer guts of 12 million Americans who put on uniforms to serve their nation, and gave their last full measure on battlefields in the Pacific and Europe. But the guts wasn’t limited to the armed services.
Some twenty million other American men and women left their hometowns to work in the factories producing planes and tanks and artillery shells all across the country–and many also gave that same measure.
In 1942 -- the year of Midway and Coral Sea, as well as Guadalcanal and the battle of the Atlantic–the numbers of Americans killed and injured in war-related industries outnumbered those killed and wounded in uniform by a factor of 20 to 1.
They also had the resources of the world’s most productive free market economy which, even after a decade of economic depression, was still able to produce 280,000 planes, 86,000 tanks, 2.5 million trucks, and 8800 warships including five aircraft carriers a month–almost 70 percent of everything the Allies produced and used in World War Two.
Third, they had the resources of character forged in a different time and place than ours. It was born from the hardship of the Great Depression, and from a religious faith that wasn’t afraid to speak its name in public (remember General Dwight Eisenhower’s references to “the blessings of Almighty God” in his address to his troops on D-Day).
But that strength of character was also a by-product of that same free enterprise system.
The Greatest Generation’s dedication and confidence sprang up from a belief that the rewards of success were something to be earned, not something ladled out to enhance our self-esteem–and that a life of hard work counts for more than a winning Powerball ticket.
People constantly ask: will there be another Greatest Generation?
I think it’s already here, but don’t look for it in Washington or Harvard or among the Occupy Somethings. Look for it in New Orleans, where tiny high tech start-ups are turning that city’s fortunes around after Katrina. Look for it among our soldiers and Marines and sailors in Afghanistan–and the veterans of Iraq coming home to create jobs and businesses for themselves.
Look for it in the fracking fields of North Dakota and central Pennsylvania, and the Walgreens and other small businesses in Joplin, Missouri who reopened their doors just three months after a tornado virtually wiped the city out.
America is poised for its next great century. Let the Greatest Generation be our inspiration–and let their epic story be remembered always.
Dr. Herman's latest book is "Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War Two," Random House (May 2012).
Historian Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institutein Washington, D.C. He is author of seven books, including New York Times bestseller "How the Scots Invented the Modern World" (2001); the Pulitzer Prize Finalist "Gandhi and Churchill"(2008); "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World" (nominated for the UK's Mountbatten Prize); and the highly acclaimed "Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II," which The Economist magazine picked as one of the Best Books of 2012. His most recent work is "The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization" (Random House 2013). Follow him on Twitter@ArthurLHerman.