Great stories from the Greatest Generation

by J.C. Derrick

Posted on Saturday, December 6, 2014, at 2:26 pm

Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw first dubbed World War II–era Americans “The Greatest Generation” in his 1998 book by the same name. “It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” he wrote.

I saw this firsthand when I interviewed several Pearl Harbor veterans for a feature in the current issue of WORLD Magazine. They told me about losing friends and loved ones at war, decades of public service, and marriages that lasted a lifetime. 

Although no one at Pearl Harbor 73 years ago tomorrow signed up to go to war, they didn’t shy away from wartime duty when it abruptly came calling. Jack Cornelison said he had no regrets about his military service: “I’d do it again, but I don’t think they’re soliciting 92-year-olds.” 

Cornelison told me about getting hit with a large piece of debris when a million pounds of gunpowder exploded aboard the USS Arizona, just feet away from his ship. He declined to request a Purple Heart out of reverence for the honor and those to whom it had been awarded. 

“It’s something that can and has been abused,” he said. “My shipmates almost demanded that I do it, but I didn’t.” 

Aside from Pearl Harbor, Fred Aldridge was involved in 19 Pacific engagements aboard the USS Helena—until three Japanese torpedoes sank the ship in the battle of Kula Gulf in 1943, killing 168 men. Aldridge dryly told me about floating around for four hours before the USS Nichols picked him up.  

I learned later that, while Aldridge bobbed in the water, there was still a night battle going on between seven U.S. ships and 10 Japanese destroyers. The first torpedo tore off the Helena’s bow, which floated upright instead of sinking. Photographer Al Bullock described the chaotic scene from aboard the USS Santa Fe: “We got the information the Helena had been sunk, and we saw this thing sticking out of the water. We were shooting at the bow, thinking it was the top of a submarine.”

I was surprised to learn that most of these men hadn’t told their stories until the last few years—mostly because no one asked. Bill Muehleib said they didn’t think of it as something that you talked about. They were just doing their duty. “Once you got over it, you had other things to think about,” the aircraft mechanic recalled. “I gotta change the engine on that P-40 [fighter airplane]. That’s what you were thinking about.”

One of the most poignant comments actually came from the son of Pearl Harbor survivor Charles Gregoire: “Thanks for making my dad feel relevant again.” It hadn’t occurred to me that they might get as much out of my visits as I did. All I did was listen.  

I hope you’ll do the same if you have the opportunity. We’re losing hundreds of The Greatest Generation every day.

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD Radio’s managing editor. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012 and eventually becoming WORLD’s Washington Bureau chief. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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