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Ronald W. Hull

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The Greatest Generation: Soon to Be Gone
By Ronald W. Hull
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Ed Matlack sent me a picture story from a doctor in San Antonio who is trying to gather stories from the greatest generation, my father's, who fought in World War II. It got me to thinking that there are some stories in my family that I could share with you.

My father learned to play the bugle in a CCC camp. Sometimes, when we were at our grandparents place, he would get his old beat up instrument out and play. Although she tolerated Reveille, my grandmother would not let him play Taps. Although she lost none of her five sons to war, she could not tolerate the refrain. My father signed up in 1941. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he had a ruptured eardrum and astigmatism so failed the medical exam. Within the next year he married our mother and my twin brother and I were born.

First, let me touch on World War I. Without that war and the devastation brought to Germany, World War II may have only been fought in the Pacific. My father's sister, Aunt Alta, was a spinster who married late. Still, she raised three children and managed a wonderful second marriage before outliving her second husband into her 90s. Her first husband, George, was very eccentric and a hard man to deal with. The story was that he was shell-shocked in World War I. Another story was that he had amassed a fairly good fortune in the stock market when it crashed in 1929. From what I knew of the family, they never owned a car, and George was so tight that he saved every penny and eventually had many coin collections. He became abusive, and my aunt had him put in the veterans’ hospital. As a result, she was able to live a more normal life, learning to drive at 55 and buying a car. She sold George's coin collections, fixed up the house, and sent her children to college with the proceeds. Recently, I heard that George never went overseas. Instead, he was an Army medic in Georgia. Recently, when I heard that the flu pandemic in 1918 killed more people than World War II, I am beginning to understand George's problem. He was probably suffering from the stress-induced by trying to take care of soldiers returning from the front in Europe with terrible, infected wounds and finally, seeing so many dying in the pandemic.

I was fortunate to be married for three years to a girl from my high school that I met at our 20th reunion. Janet came from a pioneer family in town, the Thiels, whose name is prominently displayed on the classic front of an 1890s building on Main Street. Janet's father served in World War I. After World War I he obtained his M.D. and became a prominent doctor in Dayton Ohio. He had practices in a foundry and manufacturing companies in Kettering. Janet was born into wealth and privilege. However, in 1954, whether it was trauma from World War I or the stress of working long hours on industrial accidents for the companies he served, Dr. Thiel suffered a nervous breakdown, was declared incompetent, and never worked another day in his life. Janet, her sister, and her mother and father returned to our hometown to live with Dr. Thiel's aging mother. That's where I first met Janet, in junior high school. By the 1970s, Dr. Thiel had to be put in a nursing home. When the family's resources ran low, their attorney suggested that he be transferred to the same veterans’ hospital as Uncle George. I met him there once, and for the short time that I talked to him, he seemed perfectly normal, carrying on a good conversation. However, I learned from Janet and he refused to associate with the other men there because he felt them inferior. He lived out his life in the hospital until he was 96.

My dad's oldest brother, Frank, was in the Army during World War II. I know nothing of his experiences except his pictures in uniform and wish I had asked, and only know that he divorced his first wife with which he had three children, and married another with which he had seven children and always seemed to be unable to fully take care of his families. He was an alcoholic and spent much of his life as a Chicago cab driver until he was forced to move to Phoenix because of emphysema. I often wonder if the war had something to do with his failed first marriage and his failure in life and health.

My mother's only brother, Basil, appeared to be the rising star in the family. He served in the 101st Airborne during World War II and guarded Berchtesgaden at the end of the war. I don't know if he was at Bastogne or not, but he brought home some German war trophies that my cousin treasured. He, too divorced during the war and remarried. He had two children with his first marriage and three with his second. In the 1950s he started a trucking company that was quite successful for a while. In 1962, when his father was near death from multiple strokes, he disappeared. His wife had to declare bankruptcy and raise their three children without him, hoping to find him someday. In 2007 we learned, from the five children that the woman who ran off with my uncle left, that she had died in 2005 and that he had died an alcoholic in 1995 from complications of emphysema. They went to California together where he worked in a plant making prefab homes. After they retired, they moved to Boise Idaho. Her family traced her to Boise because she kept her original Social Security number and collected on it. Both had changed their names, and uncle Basil had changed his Social Security number. I often wonder how much the war affected uncle Basil's behavior.

Recently, I visited my Uncle Ed, my dad's second oldest brother, now 88. I know he served in World War II in the Air Force and asked him about it. He told me he'd joined the Air Force in 1939 and somehow, although he was stationed at many bases, never saw combat during World War II. It was only until the Korean War that he went overseas. He served as an adviser in Vietnam during the early 60s, gave tours at Cheyenne Mountain and retired after his 20 years as a Major. He didn't fly airplanes until after the war and I recall him taking me up in a Piper Cub about 1948. He and his wife had three children and adopted another. I only talked to him about an hour before I had to leave, but I hope I'll have more time in the future for him to tell me his experiences.

My family's experience gives me all the more reason to try to avoid war at all cost. The trauma of war goes far beyond those killed, it affects generations that follow. There's nothing glorious about that. That generation saved us from Hitler. It was prosperity and Western thinking that brought down the Great Bear and emasculated the red menace. While there are still threats out there in the form of petty dictators in extremist cults, they can be dealt with by police action and not war.

I urge you to seek out your aging relatives and ask them about their war experience. You will be surprised what they tell you. Before they are soon gone.

Copyright 2008 © Ronald W. Hull


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Reviewed by Michael Guy 8/28/2008
Fascinating family history! My parents too were Greatest Generation. My Dad, a fighter pilot in Army Air Core and a 1st Lieut. Now he's gone; for years we would watch movies or TV and when anything about WWII or planes came on my dad would get excited and try to tell a story or two; sadly, we shut him up (and down) "Hey we want to watch the movie now!"

In the 90's I got very interested in WWII what with cable TV and videos, but after 1995 the big "A" started to claim his mind and memory.

Sadly, I waited too long to show him how much I appreciated his accomplishment. Now I'm excited about how those guys flew thos "wild, little low-tech planes" into such fierce situations: all on skill and by the seat of their pants!

He knew in the end though that I admired him for it.

He was much "tougher" than Reagan! And he never let Alzheimer's make a vegetable of him; to the end he was on his feet, fighting (sometimes too hard to handle!)

Great stories told...

best, Mike
Reviewed by Sherry Heim 5/25/2008
My whole family has served in the military prior to my generation and then, my brother served and now his son serves. My dad served in WWII as did his only brother who lied about his age to get into the Navy. When the Navy found out about his age, he was already deployed so he was dropped off on a Hospital Ship where he was put in charge of those who had lost all of most of their limbs. He hated his job, being begged by his charges for him to kill them. He lived out the rest of his days in fear of being in a similar situation. When he was in his late 50's, with two sons still in school, he took his own life when he was told by his doctor that he had a heart condition and needed to sell his dental practice and retire. My father served on battleships in WWII and in Korea before completing his service in the Navy...He never really spoke about those times much except to tell of his time during the Invasion of Normandy and how the ocean was red with the blood of the soldiers who were being slaughtered there, securing his life long dislike for the French. He also gave us a bit of background on how he got Malaria, but it all seemed so foreign to me I don't recall a lot about it. Both of my Grandfathers served in WWI and never spoke of the difficulties of war, only about the comrads they had during those years. I don't know if it was too grissly to discuss or if they both, being patriots to their deaths, felt that it was something that was their duty and that they were proud to have served. Honestly, I get the pride of service feel from both of my grandfathers and my father and certainly from my brother and my nephew. War is a horrible thing and I am not certain if police action will be enough to deal with the likes of AquaVelva Man of Iran or not, so far he seems pretty crazed. I would be happy to see war put behind us and for the human race to evolve to the point where power and possessions don't rule the world. Yes, the trauma of war goes on long past the battlefield but until we learn to put our greed and wastefulness aside, I fear that we will continue as we have for so many centuries. Thank you for letting me know that you had written this, it was an interesting read that I am sure will continue to jog the memory banks of most who read it, leaving additional, interesting stories in their reviews.
Take care,
Reviewed by Jon Willey 5/24/2008
My father's youngest brother served in WW II. He was in the Army, a grunt. He fought in North Africa, Enzio in Italy and Normandy during the D-Day invasion. He was honored with a bronze star. He, like millions of other brave Ameicans throughout our history are the reason we are here. Living in feeedom in the greatest democracy in the history of mankind. Certainly a blessing from God. Small world, I too, took my first airplane ride about 1948 or 49. In a Piper Cub. With my neighbor's son who was a pilot by age sixteen. Loops, stalls, rolls over the tree tops, under the power lines! Take off speed about 65 knots, cruise speed, about 65 knots, landing speed, about 65 knots. What a thrill for a six or seven year old at that time. You bring back many fond memories and keeep alive the reason we celebrate Memorial Day. To honor the many that have served and continue to serve their nation with honor, JMW

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