Monday, May 27, 2013
The Greatest Generation
Excerpt from Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation”, 1998.
“I have a daily reminder of the war because of my disability. It changed my life.”
The wartime exploits of Bob Dole are well known by now. He was a young lieutenant out of Kansas when he was gravely wounded as he led his squad from the 10th Mountain Division against a fortified German position in the Italian Alps. He almost died before he was evacuated to the United States for a long series of operations and excruciating therapy in what turned out to be the impossible task of completely saving the use of his right arm. The terrible wound came in a flash of enemy fire on an Italian hillside. The recovery took three years and three months in America, during which he almost died from infections and other complications.
For part of his recovery period he was in a hospital ward with two other wounded veterans, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Philip Hart of Michigan. Later the three friends would serve in the U.S. Senate at the same time. Although they represented different political philosophies, that common experience of the war and wounds was a bond that transcended partisan considerations.
Dole’s experience in the war and the sacrifices of his working class parents and friends from the small, hardscrabble town of Russell, Kansas, to help him recover from his injuries were appropriately familiar themes in his political career, especially in his campaign for president against Bill Clinton. It was always touching when this complex, proud man, so private and even abrupt when it came to other personal matters, talked about the time in his life, choking up as he described how his father, with so little means, struggled to make the train trip from Kansas to Chicago to see his badly injured son; how his mother, even though she hated smoking, held his cigarettes for him as he lay in a hospital bed, barely able to move either arm in the early going; how the people of Russell set up cigar boxes in businesses along Main Street and labeled them THE BOB DOLE FUND, raising eighteen hundred dollars for his medical fees, mostly through quarters and half-dollars. One of his neighbors was as poor as the Doles, but he wanted to do something, so, the Senator remembers with an affectionate chuckle, “He brought me a duck. Couldn’t afford anything else, so he brought me a live duck!”
It may be difficult for current generations to understand just how much poverty there was across America, even after the war. Working-class families lived right on the margins with very little left over. They were used to it, as it had been that way since the beginning of the thirties, especially in rural America. Indeed, after the Depression, joining the Army was a step up for many Americans. Dole remembers, “It was a good deal; you got a good pair of boots, three meals a day, new clothing, a new rifle. It was the most many young Americans had ever had.”
James DeVane grew up in rural North Carolina during the Depression. As a combat infantryman, he was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and spent three harrowing months in a prisoner-of-war camp. Still, he believes what he and his family went through during the thirties was more difficult and more meaningful to his life. They lived in a simple log cabin, heated by coal and a wood stove, with no plumbing or electricity. DeVane carried a shotgun to school every morning so he could shoot game birds along the way for the kitchen table. His father raised pigs and goats and sold his catch of shad from the Cape Fear River. His mother organized local friends to gather mistletoe from the nearby woods and sell it to New York merchants. Together, DeVane’s parents managed to keep the family together, which so impressed their son that he’s able to say, “I know it was less stressful to fight as a soldier with only yourself or your squad to look after than it was to care for, feed, and raise children in the Depression.” DeVane, who now has a successful printing business, concludes, “World War II infantryman came from a background of heroes.”
Please think about this today and think about your family and friends who came before you who sacrificed their lives for you. God Bless America.
May 27, 2013