70 years of memories survive for 'Greatest Generation' as WW II anniversary nears

World War II is often cited as forging 'the greatest generation,' Americans who came of age in the Great Depression. Now with the observance of the 70th anniversary of America's entranc

World War II tribute to vets

Historical footage from D-Day & Pearl Harbor.

— For Sen. Frank Lautenberg, surviving World War II was, more than once, a matter of luck.

Lautenberg was among hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers working in and around the Belgian port of Antwerp in late 1944, when Nazi Germany fought desperately to take it back.

As Lautenberg's United States Army Signal Corps team spliced phone cables and repaired switchboards, German "vengeance weapons" — V-1 bombs powered by jet engine and V-2 rockets, the first ballistic missiles — rained down on the port.

One exploded on the other side of an open drawbridge that had held up his team's convoy; another landed at the very spot where Lautenberg and his crew had been working before they took a lunch break. Another day, he found himself dangling from a wooden pole, entangled in cables and gear, as air raid sirens warned of incoming buzz bombs, before finally falling to the ground with a thump.

"I was kind of dazed and sore. Luckily, no bombs landed nearby," he recalled.

"Each of us who served in places where shooting took place, bombing took place, had those kinds of funny, odd episodes occur," the New Jersey Democrat noted recently, with the understatement typical of many war vets.

Lautenberg, who went to war at 18 and is now 87, is just one notable example of a dwindling national treasure, the survivors of more than 16 million American men and women who served in uniform during World War II.

Lautenberg and Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, are the only veterans of the war still serving in Congress.

For many of the vets and those who chronicle their exploits, there is a sense of finality in the observance of the 70th anniversary of America's entrance into the war with the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The U.S. declared war on Japan the next day, and on Japan's Axis partners, Germany and Italy, Dec. 11 — the same day they declared war on America.

Many unit reunions are billing their events as the "last" formal gathering, acknowledging the dwindling numbers and failing health of vets in their 80s and 90s. Kids and grandkids of veterans now make up the majority of attendees. They collect stories, tend to commemorative Web pages and proudly display the memorabilia their loved ones brought home.

World War II is often cited as forging "the greatest generation," Americans who came of age in the Great Depression, fought to save democracy from fascism and went on to lead the country into an unprecedented era of prosperity and social change.

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote how the war had resulted in the "uniting of the American spirit," how it created "the sense of a unified purpose," that few other events in American history have achieved.

Roughly half of all American men aged 18 to 49 served in World War II, creating "this huge group that had a common bond of service to our country," Lautenberg said. "We don't have that so much today. There's a greater detachment between service to our country and many people's lives."

The war mobilized the entire country, adding 19 million to the workforce, 35 percent of them women. Everyone lived with rationing. Children collected scrap metal and paper to be recycled into war material.

First of several reports. Return to naplesnews.com through Wednesday for more Scripps Howard News Service and Daily News coverage of the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II or pick up a copy of the Daily News on Sunday through Wednesday. Coming Monday: A report from Ernie Pyle.

There's an urgency to honor those veterans who remain. Congress has given special recognition this fall to the first African-American Marines, forced to train and serve separately from whites, and to Japanese-Americans, who were first declared enemy aliens, but then allowed to serve in segregated units.

Battling Germans in Europe and prejudice at home — including internment of many of their families — Japanese-American soldiers were determined to succeed, none more than Inouye, who lost his right arm destroying enemy machine guns with hand grenades.

Inouye went on to become a lawyer and has represented Hawaii in the Senate for more than 48 years. In 2000, he and 19 other members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were awarded the Medal of Honor following a Pentagon review of discrimination during and after the war, and two years after the government formally apologized to Japanese-Americans for their treatment.

"I left the war as an adult — I was a teenager when I got in — feeling rather proud of myself as an American, and to this day I look upon my country as a great country," Inouye said in recent interview. "The fact is this country did admit its mistake and very few countries can do that."

Men like Inouye and Lautenberg rushed home in 1945 and 1946 looking to make up for lost time.

SH11K069WWII Nov. 9, 2011 -- Wreckage of USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress) (WWII)

Photo by Library of Congress

SH11K069WWII Nov. 9, 2011 -- Wreckage of USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. (SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress) (WWII)

SH11K067WWII Nov. 9, 2011 -- Wartime photo of Sen. Daniel Inouye. (SHNS photo courtesy Sen. Daniel Inouye) Black and white photo. (WWII)

SH11K067WWII Nov. 9, 2011 -- Wartime photo of Sen. Daniel Inouye. (SHNS photo courtesy Sen. Daniel Inouye) Black and white photo. (WWII)

The GI Bill opened doors few had cracked before the war. The program paid returning vets' tuition and a modest living expense for trade school or college, and also set up a low-interest loan program to buy homes, farms or businesses. Some 7.8 million took advantage of the educational benefits.

"I probably would have ended up a store clerk, maybe, if good fortune had struck, a surgeon, but more likely a clerk," Inouye said.

Lautenberg said when he graduated from high school, "I would probably have been glad to take a job as a bus driver."

Lautenberg had grown up poor around Paterson, N.J., moving in and out with grandparents as his parents' fortunes rose and fell.

"Not only were our finances limited, but so were my horizons," he said. "The GI Bill not only gave me a way to further my education, but an opportunity to consider careers."

After graduating from Columbia University with a business degree, Lautenberg worked in insurance, but soon heard from an old neighborhood friend, Henry Taub, who had started a business processing company payrolls.

Taub asked Lautenberg to help drum up more business. Before long, he was heading a marketing department for what is now known as Automatic Data Processing, a company that now has more than $9 billion a year in sales and more than a half-million clients.

Lautenberg put in 30 years at ADP, becoming chairman and CEO before deciding to try his hand at public office. He won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1982.

"I thought it would be great to serve one term," he said. "But life took a great turn for me." New Jersey voters have re-elected him four times.

Military service and education released a torrent of energy for civic improvement and involvement among the returning vets.

Cornell University government professor Suzanne Mettler, who has studied the impact of the World War II vets on civic life after the war, said: "There were many aspects of the military that predisposed them to participate more, that gave them a sense that it was important to be a part of the political system and have a stake in it and that carried into joining clubs, service organizations, supporting the arts, generally enriching the lives of their communities."

Six World War II vets from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush became U.S. presidents. In the 1970s, as much as 70 percent of Congress had served in the military; today, fewer than 20 percent have.

"I'm not suggesting that you have to have served to be a patriot — far from it," Inouye said. "But those of us who have seen blood look at war a little differently than others."

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