America Honors 'Greatest Generation'
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
NEW ORLEANS, June 7, 2000 In 1938, the man who would be its commander in chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said the generation coming of age had "a rendezvous with destiny."
That destiny was to save the world for democracy during World War II. And the celebration of the opening of the National D-Day Museum here June 6 was a chance for younger Americans to thank their parents and grandparents.
"We are the heirs of your sacrifices," said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen during the opening ceremony. "We are citizens of the world that you made, and we can only stand in awe of your courage, at your sense of duty and the other sacred gift that you have offered to all people. To you belongs the honor of this day."
In his speech at the opening of the museum, Cohen quoted Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. A Union lieutenant in the Civil War, Holmes still sat on the court when the men of World War II were youngsters. Holmes noted that his comrades from the Civil War were getting older and that each year there were fewer of them. "Only one thing has not changed. As I look into your eyes, I feel the great trial of your youth has made you different," the jurist said.
It has been 55 years since the end of World War II, and these men and women can sympathize with Holmes' observation.
"I think all of us bear the marks to this day of our experiences on D-Day," said Roy Boyter, a 29th Infantry Division soldier who landed with the second wave at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. "Seeing friends die -- men who we had lived with for up to three years -- will affect you."
A 1st Infantry Division veteran listening to Boyter took up the story. "The way your friends were killed added to the shock of seeing them dead," said Gib Blaylock. "This wasn't some movie death scene where the villain just grabs his heart and slumps over. People were being blown apart. In some cases you recognized pieces of your buddies.
"Someone told me that a combat soldier is a realist. After the first exposure to sudden death you understand it can happen to you and it's just God's will or luck that it wasn't."
Thousands of those realists were in New Orleans for the opening of the museum and to commemorate those who died in battle. Many men took their World War II uniforms out of storage and wore them during the events June 6. "I'm not any fatter," said a veteran Army first sergeant. "But somehow I'm shorter."
"Yeah, you won't die, you'll just shrink out of sight," said a fellow vet.
That humor was also in evidence and must have sustained the men in 1944. Boyter was talking to another 29th Infantry Division vet about the battle for St. Lo. "I made it to St. Lo a week before the regiment did," he teased. "I was captured by the Germans and sent through there." What Boyter neglects to say is that he was shot through both legs and the Germans, when they retreated, left him to be cared by Allied doctors.
Other men carried the 48-star flags they had carried during World War II. The flags are faded now. "Sort of like us, I suppose," said a D-Day pilot. "But we'll hammer this flag to the top of the flag staff and still fight for it, I guess."
The military parade to honor these veterans was billed as the largest in 40 years. The line ran two miles through the streets of the city and passed in front of the museum. Veterans in Army trucks waved to the thousands of people lining the route. Bands and marching units from today's military and French and British troops also honored the veterans by their presence.
The veterans seemed proud and pleased at the response of the people of the city. In a truck carrying veterans of the 4th Infantry Division that landed on Utah Beach June 6, 1944, tears streamed down the craggy face of one veteran. But he was still smiling and he was still waving to the crowd.
Marine veterans of severe fighting in the Pacific Theater of World War II were buoyed along the route by the "Ooh-Rah's" of current and former Marines. In the bed of one Army truck, a former Marine carried a captured Japanese flag and waved it at the crowd.
Today's service members also benefited from meeting the veterans and hearing their stories. One Medal of Honor recipient seemed to have a joint service conference around him as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines hung on his every word. He was peppered by questions from the curious service members, and they wouldn't let him go until they had their pictures taken with him.
"They are a lot like we were," he said to his wife as he walked away. "Too young for the type of work we ask them to do."
Some of the veterans used the opportunity to learn more about today's military. "What do you mean you're in the reserves and your unit is deploying to Kuwait?" asked one Georgia veteran. The Louisiana Army Reservist assured the vet that was the case. Members of the 29th Infantry Division Association -- "The 29ers" -- were proud their National Guard unit was sending battalions to Bosnia.
The museum is more than just a house of artifacts. Part of its attraction is the stories of the veterans. Interspersed among the exhibits are videos of the men and women and their recollections of America, military life, life on the home front and combat. The pictures these videos show are of young men and women, but the voices are old and sometimes it is difficult to reconcile the difference.
The World War II generation grew up enduring the hardships of the national calamity called the Great Depression and then fought in the most destructive war in history. Newsman Tom Brokaw calls those men and women now entering, or in, their 80s "The Greatest Generation" in his best-selling book.
At the end of film director Steven Spielberg's masterwork on the Normandy invasion, "Saving Private Ryan," the character played by Tom Hanks is dying. He looks at Private Ryan and says, "Earn this." Spielberg himself alluded to this during his speech at the grand celebration. He said the generations that followed the World War II generation had to work "to earn their respect."
Cohen stressed that today's military is working to earn the respect of their predecessors. "Those who have inherited the mantle of defense, the men and women of today's armed forces … carry on your noble work, deserving what you have created, defending the victory you achieved and honoring the ideals for which you struggled," he said. "On behalf of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who came after you, we say 'Thank you.'"