They were, and still are, the best of us in every way.
They are "The Greatest Generation," the young men and women who left their small towns, fields and cities to travel the world, to places they had never imagined, much less heard of, to fight enemies that threatened their very way of life.
The heroes of World War II battled Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, a two-front war that stretched to nearly every corner of the world in an age when weapons of mass destruction first were introduced. The devastation and death from that war still boggle the mind, but it was a struggle worth the cost.
After they won, they came home to build a postwar America of cities and towns, businesses and schools and an economy that still puts food on our tables. They raised families, instilling the values of hard work, faith and patriotism that remain the foundation of our republic. No generation of Americans has endured or accomplished more.
And now they are in their sunset years, 80 and older, their eyesights and memories fading a bit but still with much to offer. Most of all, their stories. We need to hear and read them, and learn the lessons they teach us.
The veterans of World War II are passing from our midst in great numbers, more than 900 a day, according to the Veterans Administration. About 2.5 million remain with us in the United States, maybe 50,000 in Georgia. The youngsters who joined the service at age 18 in the last year of the war are past 80, many in their 90s and older.
That’s why The Times and gainesvilletimes.com decided to offer a special salute this Veterans Day to the men and women who won the world’s largest and most important conflict. In today’s paper, you’ll find a sampling of their stories, local veterans of Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, Normandy and other venues that now live in our history books. Online, you’ll see them tell their stories in their own words
Reporters Harris Blackwood and Ashley Fielding visited them at their homes, looked over their photos and memorabilia, turned on the video cameras and let them tell their stories. They felt the impact of these amazing Americans and their heroic tales.
"When you take a moment and realize how many men and women from this area were involved in important events of World War II, it is awe inspiring," Blackwood said. "To be in their late 80s or early 90s and have such vivid and crisp memories of their wartime experience is amazing. I am a lover of history and to hear it retold in a firsthand account was something I’ll never forget."
The veterans interviewed were about Fielding’s age when they headed off to save the world.
"As a young reporter, I was humbled as I realized the extent that the people sitting next to me had participated in such a major part of our country’s history," Fielding said. "They speak about their service in World War II as if there was no other choice, no option, but to come together and help their countrymen in whatever way they could until everyone could come back home. They are proud of their service, and discuss their time in the military as if it were a just another compulsory step in reaching adulthood."
There stories are as varied as the war itself. We share them with you today so you can experience them as well, and what they mean to us on this Veterans Day. We trust you’ll be just as awed with their courage as we are.
And these are just a few of the veterans in our lives and neighborhoods. Many of us have our own parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have told us their own tales, taking us back to those days when the very survival of the free world hung in the balance.
In addition, we asked readers to send in the names of all of the surviving World War II veterans in our area. Though, sadly, we couldn’t tell all of their stories in detail, we wanted their names to serve as a lasting, tangible tribute to their service. Read their names and know that each of them made sacrifices that helped make our country great and our world better.
Their courage and love of country leaves us awed. We can hardly imagine the horror, the danger and uncertainties they endured for a cause greater than themselves.
All we can offer is this: Our everlasting gratitude, and the promise that their hard work and sacrifice will be carried forward to ours and future generations, that their courageous efforts will never be forgotten.