The Greatest Generation

I  found the box at the bottom of a stack of other boxes in a dusty damp corner of the basement. “I forgot these were here” I said to no one but myself.  As I leafed through the faded black and white images that were part of the contents marked miscellaneous, I realized I had come across old photos of my Dad.  Photos I had never seen before of him at his air base in England. He looked like every other G.I. I had seen in pictures published or on shows about the war. It was hard to believe that was my Dad. A young man full of pride and promise.

My Mom and Dad were from , the Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw so aptly named them. I started to remember some of the  stories  my parents told in snippets, as I grew up,  each photo conjuring up another memory. Stories of the love and happiness they found together and in stark contrast, stories of the horror that they saw during the great war, WWII.

That is where it all started, our family. It is a wonderful love story amidst the horror and violence of war. Many American families have such stories, such beginnings. These family histories piece together to become  the tapestry of our history as a people, as a nation and  as Americans. They shaped the country for generations to come. Here is one such story of a family… my family.

My Dad was a gawky, tall farm boy from Kentucky. His youngest daughter, yours truly, will inherit those physical traits. He was tapped early to become the man of the house, his Dad succumbing to Typhoid Fever when he was eight years old. The oldest of five children during the Great Depression, he had to take on a lot of responsibilities at a very early age. That explained his need in later life to re-live his child hood in many ways. He loved being a Grand Dad,  buying and playing with the toys he supposedly bought for the kids. He loved gadgets, especially totally impractical ones and he had a sense of wonder and love of life’s simple things until the day he died. Even though he was robbed of a childhood, he always would comment on how blessed he was to have been brought up on a farm. He thought it helped form him into a well-rounded and disciplined man. As a Catholic in the south,  He recalls being the target of the Ku Klux Klan who would march down the road, their family hiding behind closed doors,  afraid that this would be their turn to be the target of a burning cross, which had been the case with other Catholic families in the area. He talked about the intolerance of those days, of anyone who was different, who didn’t fit the mold. This was the south he lived in but to which he never really belonged.

My Dad remembers telling his Mother who wasn’t too keen on the idea, that he was going to enlist when the United States entered  WWII.  He wanted to enlist with the Air Force and feared if he waited he would be drafted into the Army as a ground soldier and so he and a friend went and enlisted in the Army Air Corp as it was called and so started his journey. The troop ship he boarded held thousands of soldiers and the Kentucky farm boy who had never ventured far from home found himself  on a ship, sea sick, heading into one of the most momentous wars in history.They weren’t told where they were going until they were in the middle of the Atlantic. Then they were told their destination was England. The ship zig zagged all the way to the white cliffs to avoid detection by the German U-Boats,  making it a longer than usual journey.

The U.S. and England (Ike and Churchill) hatched an ingenious plan to start air bases in the most remote and rural areas of England. Hiding and camouflaging them from the Germans and blending them as best they could into the farm countryside.

My Dad was sent to a little hamlet about an hours train ride from London in the county of Norfolk called Attleborough. That was the hometown of my mother. As I looked at her staring back at me from the old photo, I noted how beautiful she was.  Her dark hair touching her shoulders, her green eyes flashing as she smiled,  Her tall five foot nine-inch frame thinner than usual. Wartime England was a hard life, with severe rationing and sometimes only what you could grow yourself on the dinner table.

My mom’s family faired a little better than most because they had a Hen House with chickens and eggs. A fond memory of mine was going back to visit my Nana and Granddad and going into the little house to look for eggs which were still warm to the touch. It felt like Easter every morning with an Easter egg hunt! On the flip side, they also had an outhouse until they passed away.  So, as a child coming from 1960’s America to this world that seemed stopped in time, it felt a little like coming back to Brigadoon.  One of my least favorite memories, though, was using that outhouse!

My father was stationed at Deopham Green Air Base, near Attleborough. The Mighty Eighth Air Force was a dominant factor in the victory of the Allies over Germany. The Flying Fortress,  B-17,  was the plane that my Dad worked on as a mechanic. It was legendary and the workhorse of the Eighth Air Force. He was a Propeller Specialist.  We went back many years later and at the site of the old prop shop we found his initials carved into the stone where they hammered out the propellers, like a blacksmith. Imagine the hut and this stone still being there decades later. England really was stopped in time after the war, its effects being felt for years to come.

Amidst this war torn back drop,  there were also happy memories and a budding love story that evolved. One fate full night my Dad and his buddies decided to attend a dance held at a church in my mother’s home town,  looking across the crowded room he spotted my mother, who was standing by the piano. It was love at first sight. He asked her to dance, and the rest was history.

As my Dad grew older, he would talk more about his war memories perhaps to make sure this personal history wasn’t forgotten and lost forever.  One such story was the angst he would feel  going out to the field with his buddies to watch the B-17’s limp home from their raids over Germany. Each one nervously counting each plane that came back. Dreading when the count came back short,  which happened more times than they would like. He recalled one plane making it all the way back from a raid over Germany , with an engine out, only to crash-land and catch on fire on the runway. He remembers the horror of pulling those bodies out of the wreckage. Never forgetting those men they lost. The men that he knew, the men that came over with him on the ship, the men he ate meals with and now the men whose lifeless bodies he was pulling out of a burning plane.

My mother also never spoke much about her life until much later. She was an ambulance driver and saw her own fair share of horror. She remembered with tears in her eyes being called to a plane crash and never forgetting the acrid smell of burning death in the air. A smell she would never forget. What trauma and horror they had to endure. The cider factory down the street from my mom’s house was bombed by the Germans but, most of the German bombs were aimed an hour west to London. She remembers having to carry her gas mask around with her as a precaution,  because there was a fear that the Germans would use chemical weapons as they did in WWI.  My grandfather being a casualty of mustard gas during that First World War.   Buzz Bombs were also prevalent. These were bombs rigged with a motor, when the motor shut off and there was silence, you ran for cover. This meant they were dropping and detonating.

The blackest days were the days of the invasion of Normandy. The planes were sent out all day in wave after wave. My mother recalled the sky being black with planes that day. All day the planes droned over head blocking out the sun. All day my Dad’s air base sent out planes. All of them praying and knowing this was a moment in time which could change the course of the war and of the world.  They waited with a quiet knowledge that their lives could change forever. Their’s was a desperate struggle to overcome an evil whose intolerance threatened to take away peoples freedom, their human rights and their right to life. Just as my father had witnessed this kind of hatred and intolerance of people by the Ku Klux Klan,  so he did again  facing the Nazis hatred and intolerance of anyone different than them,  their evil trying to stretch outward to the rest of the free world. This was a war our parents fought and sacrificed in to protect our way of life. It was a war whose outcome would reverberate over generations to come. This was a war they had to win and so they cheered and wept when the invasion successfully turned the tide of the war.

My parents married and had my sister who arrived near the end of the war. The hoards of American servicemen were de-mobbed and sent back home after years away. Back home to re adjust, to start their new lives, some with wives and babies. My mother and my sister came over on a  re-fitted troop ship to America full of War brides and babies. The babies being put into hammocks to sleep by their beds. She recalls entering New York Harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty on May Day and the excitement and fear of starting a new life. As the story goes, she scanned the crowds waiting at the dock, ignoring a man waving at her and looking for my father.  The man turned out to be my Dad who was unrecognizable to my mother, wearing  a civilian zoot suit,  and a big fedora, She thought he looked like a gangster. As they embraced and walked away from the dock, so happy to see each other after the long separation, a nurse came running down the gangplank with my sister! They almost forgot her!

The trunk my mother’s father stenciled with her new name and address in America,  is sitting in my guest room. A constant reminder of the love of a father for his daughter. I can almost hear my Grandfather saying through tears as he hugs his daughter goodbye, “If things don’t work out, you can always come home again, my dear.” slipping her his hard-earned savings, as the story goes. That money ended up being spent on keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads.

My father would end up eventually working for the burgeoning commercial airline industry, as so many men did from the air force.  He would work there for the rest of his working life. The family’s first visit back to England would come a whole ten years later. To my home sick mothers disappointment. They were a young family with limited resources and air travel across “The Pond” back then was anything but usual or routine. It was also very expensive and they had to save up quite a while to be able to afford a trip back home.

My parents story is one played out again and again in the history of our nation.  My mother who was born in another country and came here to live the rest of her life, was more patriotic than we were growing up. Always appreciating the opportunities here in America that no other country could offer.  Their’s is a story of circumstance and courage. A story of people’s lives coming together who never would have met if not for the war. A story of families, a story of who we are as a people, as a nation, and as Americans.

Through the conflict and hardship, through the atrocities  and sacrifice, something good seemed to find its way to the top and grow. The men and women of that generation slaved and sacrificed so that those coming after them could enjoy prosperity, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Their story is a story of America and a story worth remembering.

Thank you,  Mother and Father and to all of the Greatest Generation.

We will never forget your contributions.

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About Diane Hiller

Diane has lived in the suburbs of Chicago for twenty-five years. While raising her three children with husband Jon, she has served as village president and now supports historic preservation with the Clarendon Hills Historical Society. Diane’s blog “Pleasant Valley Sunday” appears on TheHinsdalePatch.com. and chlife.wordpress.com.
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2 Responses to The Greatest Generation

  1. Angie says:

    Where to begin…
    I was riveted from the start and I’m not sure if it was because it was such a well-written history of our family or because it was so rich with detail. I tried to read it again as an objective observer and still found it fascinating. I’m still drying the tears.
    Well done!

  2. Steve says:

    Loved it! Very real.

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