I’m thinking of my father today and of his generation. Four months before Pearl Harbor, “Pop” was a U.S. merchant sailor in Shanghai. He told us about his eagerness to photograph the bridge that separated the international sector of that city from the Japanese-occupied sector.
A large white line had been painted across the middle of the bridge and Japanese marines, their bayonets drawn, manned their side of the line. Chinese civilians who had to cross that bridge to work were forced to kowtow to those marines. My father wanted to show how they were mistreated.
We kids listened wide-eyed to Pop’s telling of the story. One of those Japanese soldiers had his bayonet at my father’s belly. Shocked, I said:
“But, Pop, that Japanese guy could have killed you!”
My dad replied, without hesitation. “Oh, he wouldn’t bother me. I’m an American citizen.” My dad’s assurance was shared by his contemporary, Ronald Reagan. My favorite president said he remembered a time when Americans could put a little flag in their lapel and travel safely anywhere in the world.
In truth, such a time never really existed, but it almost did. Americans had been molested for centuries on the high seas. Barbary pirates—the name today conjures more of Disney than of ISIS—kidnaped American seamen in the Mediterranean and held them for ransom. Those sailors suffered terribly. Some were killed, some were tortured and raped, some were sold into slavery. And some even “turned Turk”—converted to Islam—to survive their captivity.
My father’s generation—those who endured the Great Depression and won World War II—have been called the Greatest Generation. They never called themselves that. What I remember most today was their becoming modesty.
My dad was not only nonchalant facing a Japanese bayonet, he was also pretty casual about the time in 1943 when his ship was torpedoed. The S.S. Deer Lodge sank quickly, so Pop and his shipmates had to clamber into the lifeboats.
I learned from one of those shipmates—a decade after my father’s death—that Pop had run around the slippery, sloping deck to unlatch the pelican hooks that secured the rubber boats. Without his quick thinking, his shipmate told me, few crew members of the Deer Lodge would have made it out of those frigid waters off South Africa.
And yet, what he talked about was the five-star hotel where the shipwrecked sailors were housed for weeks in South Africa—and his once-in-a-lifetime chance to play tennis every day with the South African women’s tennis champion. He made the whole harrowing event sound like an adventure.
It was my cousin who remembered what Pop looked like before the sinking. He had a full head of curly brown hair, she told us. After the torpedoing, Pop’s hair was thinning and straight. Asked why his hair had so changed, he breezily dismissed it: “It must’ve been the oil on the water when I got into the lifeboat,” he said.
Pop had gone back to his compartment as the ship was sinking to retrieve his treasured Zeiss Icon camera. The photographs he took of the sailors in the lifeboats show the men’s faces taut and grim but grimacing with determination to survive and to win.
Later, Luftwaffe strafed another of my dad’s ships in Naples harbor. Pop noted that Naples had been declared an Open City, meaning that there was to be no combat there. Far from being outraged by the Germans’ violation of the terms, Pop took it in stride.
He also took in stride the rigors of two, perhaps three, crossings of the U-boat infested North Atlantic. Churchill described the mission of those convoys, that vital lifeline, as “a measureless peril.” Again, Pop was more amused than afraid.
Only much, much later did I learn that those merchant ships had strict orders not to stop for survivors. Instead of talking about that, Pop thought it poignant that he had to show Welsh schoolchildren how to eat a banana. Wartime rationing was so severe these kids had never seen a banana.
I mean no disrespect of my father’s generation. They were a great generation, a very great generation. I honor their memory today. But we must not call them the Greatest Generation. If we do, how does that reflect on the American soldiers of the Revolution who left their bloody footprints in the snow on the road to Trenton? Or on those Civil War soldiers who quietly and resolutely sewed their names on the back of their Union blue jackets as they prepared to assault Cold Harbor and faced certain death?
If we call any of our honored ancestors the Greatest Generation, we are acceding to the idea that America’s greatness is past. For many of us, America’s greatest days are yet to be lived out.
Robert Morrison is a former Reagan official and senior fellow at the Family Research Council who blogs from Annapolis.
Photo Credit: Convoy at sea during World War II, circa 1943 – 1945. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.