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Thank you, Greatest Generation, for carrying America through Pearl Harbor

Stu Hedley, 95, was a gunner on the USS West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and surrounding areas.
Stu Hedley, 95, was a gunner on the USS West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and surrounding areas. TNS

In the dying sunlight of your American afternoon, we keep listening to you, the Pearl Harbor generation.

Especially Wednesday.

On those rare occasions when my newspaper fails to note the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, or scantily notes it, you valued readers of a certain age let us know. As well you should.

Wednesday is the big 75th anniversary. But “anniversary” seems too happy a choice to pair with that treacherous surprise attack, described by President Franklin Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy,” that killed so many of your men and plunged you into World War II and seismic shifts throughout America and the world.

Maybe it was your Sept. 11.

You were just a couple of long generations past the Civil War, which set us on the path to really becoming the United States of America. From what you have told me, World War II furthered that path. You boys and girls from farms and big cities from Winston to Washington – blacks, American Indians, whites and children of new and old immigrants, rich, middle-class and poor – gave your all to the effort, even if that coming together was not always easy. But whether serving overseas or keeping factories and farms and homes going, you all, many of whom were fire-forged by The Great Depression, quickly became men and women.

Baby boomers like me cherish your stories and sepia photos from treasured scrapbooks. You taught us toughness and how to measure its mark, how to know when that certain cowardly bully of today is falling far short of that mark.

People like my parents and aunts and uncles confronted the war in different ways, some with nonviolence, but you all served in your own way.

Then, in August 1945, President Truman ordered the atom bombings of first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, saving so many of our troops in the Pacific and ending the war but killing and maiming so many Japanese women and children, a massive contradiction with which many of us, your children, still wrestle: Many of us wouldn’t be here to freely raise such questions had our fathers been killed invading Japan.

So many of our troops had already been killed.

After the war, you survivors built your lives and our lives. You farmed and worked in factories and offices – blue-collars and bluebloods, Republicans and Democrats – united by memories of the war and your dedication to advance us, your children. You taught us what you could of war and the ways of the world.

You saw our nation split over Vietnam and so many other issues, then reunite, all too briefly, over Sept. 11.

And now you are leaving us all too soon, forcing us to finally grow up. Too many of you have died and too many are dying. We cherish those of you still on this side of eternity, and many of us linger on your every word.

Your comforting wisdom continues to guide us in a world many of you find as uncertain as we do, one where the lines between good and evil blur and congressional gridlock rules. The Japanese, and the Germans, have long been our allies and friends, but new enemies await as the world keeps tearing asunder.

And too soon, you of the Pearl Harbor generation will be gone. Our time with you is waning. Your lessons will end. Then it will fall to us.

As President Lincoln said all those years ago about another pivotal battleground, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Thank you, Pearl Harbor generation. We can only hope to serve our children as well as you have served us. You lived out the courage and compassion we so sorely need today.

Railey is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. Reach him at jrailey@wsjournal.com.

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