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What Do Baby Boomers Have In Common?

June 24, 2011

Baby Boomers have something in common.  They can trace a connection all the way back to World War II.  At least the vast majority of them can.  With over 16 million American men and women having served, it is rare indeed to come across a Boomer who has no family ties dating back to the War.

 Some have fathers who were veterans and the lucky ones still count that parent among the living.  Others have already lost a family member and still some born during the War (not technically Boomers but right around that age) lost a parent they never got to know.

 Facing their own mortality, these Boomers have rummaged through the footlockers and cigar boxes in attics and closets all over America to better understand what it was like in World War II and what their parents had to endure.

 If they were lucky they found a medal or two, some old unit insignia, a photo and perhaps a war souvenir (American GIs were notorious in their pursuit of war memorabilia).  They may have found some evidence of what the Homefront was like with rationing, scrap drives and twenty million Victory Gardens.  It was a place where the women built the planes and ships while their men (just boys, really) went off to fight in faraway places they couldn’t pronounce or even find on a map.

 The dog-eared pictures of men in uniform frozen in their youth and naivety usually elicit a tear or two.  Motivated by these scraps of history and gripped with a sense of great curiosity, the Boomers began to dig deeper.  They found an imperfect America with boundless virtues and vexing shortcomings awakening from the Great Depression to take up arms to defend their country.

 Everyone served or at least tried to serve.  The stigma of not being in uniform was so intense it drove some to suicide.  Hollywood actors (like Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and Henry Fonda) led the way and other celebrities followed.  Over five hundred men who would return to play major league baseball volunteered, including superstars like Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio.  President Roosevelt’s son James was a Marine Raider and former President Teddy Roosevelt’s son Teddy Jr. won The Medal of Honor at Normandy.   It was rare that anyone felt exempt or entitled to a deferment.  It certainly was different from the attitudes of today.  The more the Boomers learned, the more interested they became in the life and times of their parents.

 Today, both the interest and connection back to that time is extremely strong.  Most Boomers are intensely proud of what their relatives accomplished.  A peaceful nation wanting no part of the trouble raging around the globe was dragged into the War by being attacked on a peaceful Sunday morning.  From victim to victor in less than 4 years!

 But America had its trials and tribulations with racial and gender bias and struggled with these issues throughout the War.  A segregated military and a condescending attitude toward women made it extremely difficult for these groups to fully participate and prove themselves.  But not impossible!

 Many women joined non-combat units (WACS and WAVES) as nurses and administrators and yet 16 were awarded Purple Hearts for wounds received.  Those who stayed home went into the factories and built the victuals of war; they fueled the “arsenal of democracy”.  And another group, numbering over one thousand, ferried fighter planes and bombers from war plants to bases, freeing up men for combat.  They did this for two-thirds the pay and no military benefits despite 38 being killed in the line of duty.

 No Medals of Honor were awarded to African-Americans during World War II despite over 1 million serving and fifty thousand being assigned to combat jobs.  The “colored” combat units were “experimental” with political forces pushing in both directions (more units or none).  But these elements proved themselves in combat and in 1997, seven African-Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor, six posthumously, in an East Room Ceremony at the White House.

 Some claim that these were dark days for social justice in American history and a chapter we should all be ashamed of.  I would rather think of those times as the turning point in gender and racial relations in America.  The realization of true equal opportunity for African-Americans and women in our country can justifiably be dated to the War.

 So it is with some satisfaction that Boomers reach back into their family histories and take great pride in their ancestors’ contribution to an America united as never before or since.  And as we say goodbye to the last of them at the rate of 1,000 per day, we should never forget them nor neglect to honor them for what they accomplished in preserving our way of life.

 The Last Jump is both a tribute and a “thank you” to all who served the United States, in any capacity, during the greatest conflagration in history.  I would like to also thank my readers, especially all the Boomers out there, for their wonderful reviews, gracious comments and support for the book. 

 I only wish I could have written it better.

 John E. NevolaThe Last Jump Book Cover

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One Comment
  1. Good essay, John. Very thoughtful and insightful.

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