The phrase The Greatest Generation was first coined by former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book by the same name. Brokaw used this phrase to describe the men and women who came of age during World War II. In his book, Brokaw noted that these men and women did not fight for fame or recognition, they fought because it was the “right thing to do.”
Also known as the G.I. Generation or World War II Generation, these Americans were born between 1901 and 1927. They were a brave and determined lot shaped by the Great Depression as they grew up and then diametrically impacted by World War II.
Answering the Call
Like so many other American families, descendants of my Spaulding ancestry embodied The Greatest Generation. Men like Distinguished Flying Cross recipient Staff Sergeant George Robert Spaulding (my Uncle Bob) of the U.S. Army Air Corps who flew 50 combat missions in the B-17 Flying Fortress. And men like his brother, Army Infantryman Staff Sergeant William James Spaulding (my Uncle Jim) who fought bravely in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations. I also remember my cousin Bill’s father, Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient Lieutenant (junior grade) William Harlan Turner who was killed in action aboard a U.S. Navy submarine. I’m also proud of my WW2 veteran cousins Bronze Star Medal recipient Sergeant Richard Harold Carlson and his brother Naval Aviation Radioman Robert William Carlson and men like my cousin Army First Lieutenant Robert Victor Froude who all faithfully answered the call to duty.
Even my father, Richard Henry Spaulding, fulfilled his calling. Time and time again, my Dad attempted to enlist, and time and time again was denied by the military saying “we need your leadership at this steel plant for the war effort”. My Dad was placed into draft grouping Class II-B, meaning “deferred in war production”.
The Greatest Generation of World War II personified the idiom non sui sed patriae which from the Latin translates not for self, but country.
Personal Greatest Generation Losses in 2021
As I was in the final phase of writing my new book Fortitude (releasing in Mar/Apr 2022), my family lost two members of The Greatest Generation.
On June 4, 2021, Robert William “Bob” Carlson passed away at age 94. Bob was the son of Paul and Katherine (Spaulding) Carlson and grandson of Arthur Addison and Mary Ella (Battles) Spaulding. Bob Carlson, who I affectionately called “Uncle Bob” was actually my first cousin (once removed). Bob’s love for family history was personally motivating to me. I will always cherish the Zoom video conference calls with Bob and my other cousins. Whenever I discovered an old family photograph and couldn’t identify the names, I knew I had to get Uncle Bob’s keen eye on it. As I write this blog post, I still feel the elation of holding up a photo to the camera on my laptop and hearing Uncle Bob enthusiastically declare, “that’s our cousin Mary Ann”!
Five months later, an amazing woman and matriarch of my Spaulding family line passed away. Catherine Marie (Klispie) Spaulding (my Aunt Kitty) died on November 9, 2021 at age 95. She was the last of our family who represented The Greatest Generation. As I wrote the final pages of Fortitude, it was estimated that we were losing Americans of The Greatest Generation at a rate of nearly 1,000 per day. That data point becomes somber when it became a face. And for my family, Catherine Spaulding was that face.
Catherine outlived The Greatest Generation children and spouses of the children of my grandparents George Arthur and Eva Louise Spaulding. She was highly respected and deeply loved by so many people. Catherine was a beloved mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She was a devoted wife to World War II veteran Staff Sergeant William James Spaulding (my Uncle Jim). Catherine Spaulding will be deeply missed and always remembered by all who had the privilege to have known her.
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, 240,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2021. Unfortunately, they are dying quickly. On May 28, 2001 (Memorial Day) President George W. Bush signed into law H.R. 1696, a bill to expedite the construction of the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. In signing this bill, President Bush said that there’s no time to waste because 1,000 of these veterans were dying every day.
The common characteristic of The Greatest Generation is that they lived through, and experienced, the hardships of the Great Depression and later either fought in World War II or worked in the industries that contributed to winning the war. Besides those who went into combat, The Greatest Generation included millions of men and women who remained home to build the provisions of war. The United States war production machine manufactured weapons, ammunition, ships, tanks and aircraft the likes that have never been witnessed in history. The home front supported the war effort and rallied behind the troops in so many ways to include rationing, planting of victory gardens to supplement rations and purchasing of war bonds.
Capture the Story
If you are blessed to have family members still alive that were part of The Greatest Generation, I encourage you to make it a priority to capture their story. Do some prep work before you meet with them. Draft some questions. Let them examine those questions in advance to prepare their thoughts. Encourage your loved one to allow you to record their story. This treasured historical artifact can then by enjoyed by your family’s future generations. Honor the precious remaining time you with these patriots.
Time is off the essence. Don’t let your Greatest Generation family member’s story be lost to the ages!
The Boy With a Flag
In 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, something extraordinary happened on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. An 11-year-old boy wanted to pay tribute to The Greatest Generation men who served on that fateful day of June 6, 1944. So his mother brought her son Normandy. This 11-year-old boy spent the next four days at the American Cemetery in France teaching tourists about the brave men who were buried there.
On the morning of the D-Day anniversary, the local police would not let the boy into the cemetery which was likely due to the commemorative events planned with global dignitaries that day. So the boy brought his American flag down to Omaha Beach. He planted it deep into the sand with his homemade flagpole. Amazingly, for the next hour and a half, with his left hand holding the American Flag and his right hand rendering a salute, he gazed across the ocean remembering what it must have been like for the 150,000 troops that landed on D-Day.
Please take the next 7 minutes to watch The Boy With a Flag Video. The patriotism of this 11-year-old boy speaks to how vitally important it is to teach our children and grandchildren about the tremendous sacrifices made by The Greatest Generation for our freedom. Warning: Better have a box of tissues ready when you watch this video!
2 thoughts on “Losing the Greatest Generation”
Dale — Thanks so much for this wonderful reminder. We have much for which to be grateful and we owe much to those who were part of the Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw got it right and so did you. Thanks for your career as a Naval officer and your Christian service to our risen savior. <