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Remembering America's Greatest Generation

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    May 17, 2012: Shown here are crosses at the cemetery at Colleville Sur Mer, in France.Jennifer Griffin

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    FNC/Little Brown

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    May 17, 2012: Omaha BeachJennifer Griffin

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    May 17, 2012: Shown here is a path near Omaha Beach.Jennifer Griffin

Memorial Day calls forth ghosts. The surviving members of our greatest generation who fought World War II will soon join their ranks. Sixteen million American men and women served in the armed forces during that war. 

Today, only an estimated 1.2 million are still living and they are dying at a rate approaching 1,000 per day. Some of their memories have been preserved, but the tangible link of their presence is rapidly disappearing.

World War II was largely fought by my father’s generation. I well remember what it was like to be a baby boomer growing up in its shadow. 

No matter when or where, all who served our country are heroes.

Our parents in the 50s and 60s seemed full of energy, capable of anything, and determined to give us more than they had had—including stability. 

Even as we celebrated the fifteen- and twenty-year anniversaries of Pearl Harbor, Midway, Normandy, and Okinawa, the war itself seemed like ancient history to us youngsters. Fifty years later and that much older, twenty years ago now seems like just the other day.

Memorial Day in that pre-Vietnam era was celebrated as a community event. Our Boy Scout troop marched for about a mile down the highway from the library to the local cemetery. I put a bugle to my lips and played taps after three rifle volleys from the VFW honor guard echoed across the hilltop. Few would have thought of being anywhere else. So many had been part of those we were honoring.

Half a century later, writing about World War II brought back those youthful memories in sharp relief and provided new ones. 

We were at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in the Punchbowl above Honolulu. “I thought you were looking for admirals,” my wife offered as I lingered over a row of graves. I was but I couldn’t get over the dates on the white stones before me. They were near my father’s age, but these members of the greatest generation had made the supreme sacrifice at eighteen, nineteen, and twenty and never had the chance to grow old.

When I turned elsewhere, everyone, it seemed, had a story—either they had served themselves or had a father, a grandfather, an uncle or aunt, or an older sibling who had. In another little town far removed from that of my youth, I stood in line at the post office and encountered an old-timer in a beat-up green hat. 

It had a line of gold braid on the bill and bore the inscription Lexington (CV-2). I gave the man a closer look. Could it be possible? “Were you on the original Lexington,” I finally asked, knowing that this was America’s second aircraft carrier. “Yes,” he replied proudly, “but it was sunk.” I nodded and answered, “I know, at the battle of Coral Sea in May 1942.” In that moment, his eyes lit up and we bonded.

Bill Dye had been a nineteen-year-old electrician’s mate on the Lexington as it sailed from Pearl Harbor to counter Japanese advances near the Solomon Islands. He was one of those who went into the water after torpedoes slammed into the ship. 

Years later, it was the little things Dye still remembered the most: The neat line of shoes along the edge of the flight deck as sailors took them off and went over the side. The ice cream—usually a rationed treat—devoured by greasy hands. The $26 Dye left in his wallet in his locker below.

Out of a complement of 2,951 on board Lexington that morning, only 137 were killed. That was due, Dye told me, to the fact “not one man on that ship got out of line.” At a spry 90, Dye says that he can't remember what he had for breakfast, but his memories of the Lexington and World War II are crystal clear.

So too are those memories that came in a letter from Richard E. Bennink. Commissioned from Harvard’s Naval ROTC program in 1938, Bennink was ordered to active duty in June 1941 and made two trips ferrying troops to Iceland on the attack transport Heyward. 

On the second trip the Heyward embarked a battalion of marine paratroopers stationed there and carried them through the Panama Canal to the South Pacific. By then, the Lexington had been sunk and the Allies were counterattacking in the Solomon Islands. Then a young lieutenant, Bennink commanded the Heyward’s first wave of Higgins boats as they landed 397 officers and men in a hail of gunfire on the shores of Gavutu.

For his selfless action in repeatedly making trips between the Heyward and Gavutu to deliver supplies and evacuate wounded marines, Bennink was recommended for the Silver Star.

Somehow, in the rush of the war, he never got it. Gavutu proved just the beginning for him and Bennink’s road home ran through Attu in the Aleutians, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa before the war’s end. He’s ninety-five now, but that didn’t stop him from attending his 73rd Harvard–Yale game last fall.

This Memorial Day we honor the veterans of America’s wars—those far removed in time and those recent and continuing. 

Some wars, like Korea, have too often been forgotten; others, like Vietnam, will always be debated. 

No matter when or where, all who served our country are heroes. It is difficult to overstate, however, the commonality of purpose and the depth of resolve that seized an entire generation and sent its eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds into harm’s way half a world away during World War II. 

We honor their sacrifices; we cherish our remaining time with them. 

In a few short years, they and their crystal clear memories will be gone.

Historian Walter R. Borneman is author of numerous books. His latest is "American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution" (Little, Brown, May 6, 2014).