'Greatest generation' quickly vanishing

1 million out of 16 million WWII vets remain alive

Thomas Broderick, who lost his vision to a bullet during World War II and went on to own an insurance agency and counsel other veterans with vision impairments, is gone now.

So, too, are Daphne Cavin, who lost her young husband, Raymond Kelley, to the war; Johnny Holmes, who endured the racism of fellow soldiers while fighting the Nazis; and Wesley Ko, a glider platoon leader who helped liberate a concentration camp.

In all, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette survey, about 71 percent of the battlefield and home-front heroes Tom Brokaw profiled in "The Greatest Generation" have died since the best-seller's publication 16 years ago. It's a poignant reminder that the "greatest generation" is also a vanishing generation.

"It makes me sad," said Nancy Pitts, Cavin's daughter by a second marriage, who recalled her mother's Memorial Day custom of putting flowers on both husbands' graves. Cavin died in 2010.

Still spry and hitting the gym at 92, Claudine "Scottie" Lingelbach, a Kansas resident included in the book for her wartime service to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said she has sometimes wondered what became of the others who shared their stories.

"How many in the book are still living?" she recalled asking Mr. Brokaw at an event both attended. "He said he didn't know."

Of the 16 million or so Americans who served in WWII, only about 1 million are left, and they're now dying at a rate of 555 a day, according to figures from the federal government and the National WWII Museum New Orleans. By 2036, all could be gone.

Holmes -- a tank unit member who at one point saw 183 consecutive days of combat and said in Mr. Brokaw's book that he "went into the Army to become a man" -- was interred last month at Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery. When a relative lamented the small turnout, Holmes' daughter, Anita Berlanga, said she told him, "pretty much everyone's dead."

James Dowling, a former prisoner of war featured in the book with his wife, Dorothy, who died in 2011, said he's sending fewer cards and notes to contemporaries these days. "A couple of them, this year, came back," he said.

Vanishing with the veterans are long-held certainties of American culture, said John McCarthy, associate professor of history at Robert Morris University, noting that economic progress, family-sustaining middle-class jobs, employer-provided health care and retirement security were generational hallmarks.

"These were the people that supported the New Deal for 30 years," he said, and the generation that heard Franklin Delano Roosevelt's defense of the "Four Freedoms"-- freedom of speech and worship and freedom from fear and want.

American culture is changing in other ways, too, because the "shared sacrifice" of the WWII years has not been required of the succeeding generations, Mr. McCarthy said.

The difference between right and wrong seemed clearer back then, Ms. Pitts said, citing the noble character of the war effort.

And though life for the WWII generation wasn't easy-- the Depression preceded the war-- "it certainly was a simpler time," Ms. Berlanga said. "I think there was a -- dare I say -- romance with WWII that we have never seen since."

Race against time

The dwindling numbers have lent an urgency to efforts to honor remaining veterans for their service.

Honor Flight, which provides airfare and bus service at no cost to veterans who want to visit the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., frames its work as a race against time.

After visiting Washington, veteran-filled buses returning to the organization's Philadelphia "hub," which serves the Pittsburgh area, get a motorcycle escort on an interstate cleared of other traffic. Cheering spectators line overpasses.

"It is something," said a tearful Henry Zmuda, a WWII veteran from Whitehall who went on a trip last fall. One of 13 children, Mr. Zmuda spent part of the Depression growing up in an orphanage.

Some supporters have described the visit as a capstone experience for the veterans, who may be too infirm to travel to unit reunions or no longer have former comrades to see.

Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP presidential nominee and longtime U.S. senator from Kansas, tries to meet every Honor Flight group. "It's a very emotional time for the veterans," said Mr. Dole, whose WWII combat injury left him with permanent arm damage.

"They wonder why it took so long," he added, referring to the memorial's 2004 opening.

While veterans are excited to visit the memorial, other tourists are excited to see them arrive en masse. "It's like, 'Wow, these are the guys that did it,' " said Andrew Schiavello, the Philadelphia hub president.

The groundswell of support for WWII veterans may be linked to the still-evolving appreciation for what they achieved.

"It took us a long time to understand the enormity of it," partly because veterans who wanted to put the war behind them long kept mum about their experiences, said Mr. Brokaw, former anchor of "The NBC Nightly News."

Opening up

Chicago resident Eileen Broderick, included in "The Greatest Generation" with her husband, Tom, who died in 2006, said veterans didn't see the need to talk about the war because they all had similar stories.

"I think they just thought this is what they had to do," she said. A lot of people, she said, "were worse off" than her husband.

Mr. Brokaw is credited with getting veterans to open up about their experiences and raising the generation's profile. "I think [documentary-maker] Ken Burns may have said it best when he said, 'you gave them permission to talk,' and they had not talked, collectively, before that," Mr. Brokaw said.

In all, the book told about 60 stories of service, sacrifice and perseverance -- how Broderick overcame his disability with the love of his wife; how Holmes' white comrades joked about having the Germans guard him; how Cavin, of Lebanon, Ind., lived for decades with a half-broken heart; and how Ko, who died in 2012, was "too young, too naive" to appreciate the danger of combat.

"It really put a human face on an enormous collective effort," said James Werbaneth, an adjunct instructor in political science and history at La Roche College.

Some of those Mr. Brokaw profiled, such as Mr. Dole and former President George H.W. Bush, have had high-profile careers. But Mr. Werbaneth said the book calls attention to those who did extraordinary things in otherwise ordinary lives.

"We almost took them for granted," he said.

Mr. McCarthy said Mr. Brokaw made an "unbelievably strong claim" in labeling the WWII generation the world's greatest of all time but believes that the book provided insight into a "really unique era in American history and in world history."

Promoting pride

Mr. Brokaw recalled the rapt attention he received when describing his book idea at a 1990s dinner with screenwriter Nora Ephron, actor Martin Short and other Hollywood luminaries. It was a sign of things to come.

"The big thing for me was, I had no idea it would take hold the way it did," he said.

For those Mr. Brokaw profiled, the book's popularity brought book signings, newspaper interviews, television appearances, visits with schoolchildren, group trips to Hawaii and New York and other experiences that gave more life to the WWII story.

"Well, we met a lot of interesting people," said Mr. Dowling, the father of eight and former POW from Smithtown, N.Y.

Ms. Lingelbach, who laughs about reading the top-secret documents she was told to copy during the war, said she signed perhaps 500 books and developed a friendship with Mary Jo Myers and her husband, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs from October 2001 to September 2005.

Ms. Berlanga said the book enhanced her father's already big pride in his service. Lloyd Kilmer, lauded in the book for his bravery as a POW and for his role in creating a Boulevard of Flags in Sun City West, Ariz., said he made friends nationwide. Ms. Pitts said her mother, who worried about Kelley's last days, heard from a former brother-in-arms who was able to reassure her.

Inclusion in the book was another in a string of remarkable experiences for Carrie Lee Nelson, a self-described "poor little hillbilly from Virginia" who became an Army nurse and married an Army officer, Gaylord Nelson, later the governor of Wisconsin and a U.S. senator. "I feel so lucky," she said. Her husband, also profiled by Mr. Brokaw, died in 2005.

After "The Greatest Generation," Mr. Brokaw published two books of letters and reminiscences of battlefield and home-front veterans, and Ms. Pitts published her own book, "When You Come Home," telling more of her mother's story.

Even as the nation begins commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I this summer, interest in WWII remains high.

"In some ways, it may be growing," said Mr. Brokaw, who is scheduled to be on the National WWII Museum's 70th Anniversary of D-Day Cruise at Normandy next month.

Please note: In an earlier edition, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers was misidentified as being a general in the Army.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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