Seventy-five years ago on June 6, 1944, hundreds of landing craft dropped their ramps onto the beaches of Normandy in France and tens of thousands of young men stared straight into hell. They were members of the Greatest Generation — of that there is no doubt. But they have been characterized as that collectively so often that sometimes we forget to look at them as individuals within the context of their own times.
Who were these men? What had they given up? Who were their wives and girlfriends, parents and siblings, sick with worry back home? What sacrifices would these men make — not only the ultimate sacrifice of life itself but also the continuing costs of a lifetime living with the experience?
As the ramp of his landing craft splashed into the foaming surf off Omaha Beach that morning, Tech Cpl. John Joseph Pinder Jr. started forward. “Joe” was loaded down with a 45-pound radio critical to the command post of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the fabled “Big Red One” Infantry Division. Almost immediately, an enemy mortar round exploded with a hail of shrapnel that tore off half his face. One-eyed, Joe struggled toward shore.
The son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, Pinder was celebrating his 32nd birthday that day. For years he had dreamed of being on a pitcher’s mound, any pitcher’s mound, in any Major League ballpark in America. But despite fierce competitiveness and a wicked curve ball, the right-hander failed to make the big-time. He bounced around the minor leagues for years and enlisted in the Army right after Pearl Harbor.
Another big right-hander had realized his Major League dreams. Baseball in those years was America’s sport and few players were more representative of it than Bob Feller, a fire-throwing fastballer for the Cleveland Indians. “Rapid Robert” finished a stellar 1941 season with 25 wins. Life Magazine called him “unquestionably the idol of several generations of Americans, ranging in age from 7 to 70.”
Feller heard the news of Pearl Harbor while en route to sign a top-dollar contract for the coming 1942 season. Instead, he enlisted in the Navy and was soon directing the rapid fire of anti-aircraft guns on the battleship Alabama in the North Atlantic.
That June morning 75 years ago, wounded Joe Pinder fought through the waves onto Omaha Beach and dropped his heavy load. Instead of hunkering down awaiting a medic for his mangled face, he plunged back into the surf multiple times to salvage communications equipment necessary to establish command and control links throughout the sector.
Although machine gun fire ripped through his legs, Pinder refused to stop. Hit a final time, he died on the beach. For his selfless efforts, he was one of three members of the “Big Red One” awarded the Medal of Honor that day. Joe Pinder proved he was a big leaguer.
Bob Feller was not near the sands of Normandy. On D-Day, he was halfway around the world aboard the Alabama en route to the beaches of Saipan. In a testament to its industrial might and the determination of its people, the United States, along with its British, Canadian, French, and other allies, was bringing freedom to occupied Europe at the very same time an equally formidable armada of ships, men, and planes was driving across the Pacific against Japan. The Greatest Generation had made a global commitment.
Bob Feller and Joe Pinder, both ballplayers at heart, gave their all to a greater cause without much thought to the consequences. For Pinder, his service meant his life. For Feller, his sacrifice was much less but his hiatus of almost four full seasons at the height of his major league career likely cost him a lifetime record of 300 wins. Feller never had any regrets; he had served his country. As he later said, “the real heroes didn’t come home.”
There are hundreds of thousands of stories from America’s wars that are just as personal and compelling. As we observe the 75th anniversary of D-Day and honor the sacrifices on the beaches of Normandy and around the globe, we should remember these heroes in the context of their times. Let us see the young, hopeful faces, so many faces, of the collective Greatest Generation.