I was watching the (A&E Biography) of Ted Williams, the baseball player. This guy raised himself as a latchkey kid, gets drafted by the Boston Red Sox, becomes the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. At the peak of his career, he signs up for World War II, becomes the most decorated fighter pilot in that war, goes back into baseball. He’s the last guy to hit .400, sleeps with every woman in Boston twenty-two times, signs up for the Korean War, gets four more medals.
And then the show ends and I look up on the shelf above my TV. There’s a picture of me in fifth grade holding a three-inch sunfish.
– Nick DiPaolo, Raw Nerve
In 1998, broadcaster TOM BROKAW coined the phrase the “Greatest Generation” to describe the American men and women born more or less between 1901-1924, “who grew up in the United States during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II, as well as those whose productivity [on] the war’s home front made a decisive material contribution to the war effort.”
“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” Brokaw wrote, because they fought “not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.”
Decades earlier, in his inaugural address, JFK (himself a decorated veteran of the Second World War) had presented a memorable thumbnail sketch of his own cohort:
[T]he torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.
Later, RONALD REAGAN (and rookie speechwriter PEGGY NOONAN) paid unforgettable tribute to “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” – all greyhaired grandfathers by the time the president saluted them at Normandy, forty years after they’d struggled onto the beach:
These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. (…)
You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.