When I was growing up, World War II still felt like a relatively recent event. Plenty of men and women who served during that time were only in their early to mid-50s, just starting in on their golden years. Current events were still very much being shaped by the aftermath of the war, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union facing each other down on opposite sides of the country they’d once joined forces to defeat. The war hadn’t yet taken on the hazy gauze of history, even myth, that it has now.
Except maybe for one particular day: June 6th, 1944. D-Day. A common term for the starting day of any military operation, forever to be associated with this particular date. Momentous from the very start, it only grew more so as its significance in the overall course of the war became more and more apparent. Anyone who fought anywhere was worthy of our respect, but the circumstances and importance of D-Day singled out those men for a certain extra level of appreciation.
Slowly though, as more WWII veterans grew older and began leaving us, that appreciation began to turn into reverence. Unasked for, they were dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” lauding them for shunning the very recognition such a term sought to bestow upon them.
Not that it was entirely undeserved. Far from home, scared, and in many cases under-supplied, they threw themselves against the seemingly invincible might of Fortress Europe. Not for the promise of one day being labelled with some lofty superlative, but for duty. For their country. For the guys next to them in the landing craft or the foxhole. And the reward they fought for wasn’t some kind of eternal glory in the history books, but the end of the war, and a boat ride home.
Now, World War II is literally a lifetime ago. The ranks of its veterans grow thinner every day. For many, the war is some distant thing that exists only in black and white photos, or as a background for some video game. And there are those who chafe at calling any generation the greatest, as if implying their sacrifices were somehow greater than those who serve now. And they’re allowed that opinion.
But let’s not forget that generation never sought that title. And did precious little not to earn it. If not the greatest, they were surely great. And today seems like a fine day to remember that.