The guys from the Greatest Generation (those who were kids during the Great Depression and fought in WWII) are just about gone. And while there’s much to admire about them, here are 10 characteristics that made them especially noteworthy.
In today’s Trumpian, divisive, go-for-the-throat-of-anybody-who-doesn’t-agree-with-you atmosphere, it’s pretty nigh impossible to imagine a time when everybody in the country was on the same side, pulling hard for the same desperately-desired goal. Yet this was certainly the case during World War II. Even though the war played out in areas nowhere near our shores, just about every young, able-bodied man in the country willingly signed up for the military and raced overseas, risking his life to fight the enemies of other countries. How in the world, you might ask, did everybody come together this way? And why? Contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen overnight, even though our reaction to Pearl Harbor may have made it seem that way.
The truth is that for a long time the majority of Americans had absolutely no desire to jump into the fray. Even as late as 1940, most people felt that the war was somebody else’s problem. At the time, the Nazi war machine was marching through Europe, using the Blitzkrieg strategy to lay claim to nearly every country it touched, including Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Sure, Americans were concerned as these countries fell, but they were finally enjoying good times they hadn’t seen in a decade. The Great Depression had loosened its grip on the American economy: farmers were reaping bumper crops, industrial production was soaring, and the banking industry was finally back on its feet. Most Americans even felt flush enough to go to the movies once a week! It was hard to believe that anything really bad was about to happen.
But by New Year’s Day, 1941, it seemed clear that tough times weren’t over after all. Germany relentlessly bombarded England from the skies, while trying to starve the Brits into submission by sinking Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic. In March, German forces blasted through Greece and Yugoslavia, and grabbed the strategically-important island of Crete in the Mediterranean. Shortly afterward, they poured into Russia, where they fought countless bloody battles and captured hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers.
Yet, incredible as it must have seemed, Europe wasn’t the only hotbed of war and devastation. On the other side of the world, Japan, in its fourth year of a campaign to conquer China, now occupied huge chunks of that country. To capitalize on these victories and realize its dream of becoming a world power, Japan was about to invade Thailand, Burma, and several other countries in Southeast Asia. Chances were excellent that the Japanese would soon take over much, if not all, of Asia.
By August of 1941, most Americans had come down from cloud nine and become plenty worried about what was going on in the world. Their fierce anti-war stance, especially when it came to warring with Japan, was rapidly disintegrating: although less than 20 percent of Americans actually wanted the U.S. to go to war, almost 70 percent preferred to risk war with Japan rather than sit back and let Japanese expansion in the Pacific go unchecked.
President Roosevelt had long promised Americans that he wouldn’t plunge the country into war, but by the beginning of November, things had gotten so hot that it no longer made sense to look the other way. He ordered the Coast Guard put under control of the Navy, a clear preparation for war. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, the mood throughout the country had become unbearably tense.
Then, on December 7, the Japanese unleashed their infamous sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of American sailors, soldiers, and airmen, and nearly wiping out the U.S. Pacific fleet. Suddenly, American resistance to the war simply vanished.
In today’s world, you’re free to buy just about anything you want, as long as you have the bucks to pay for it and it’s not illegal. But that was far from the case during World War II. Back then, Americans couldn’t run out and gas up the car whenever they felt like it, or buy a couple of pairs of shoes, or even stock up on staples like sugar, butter, and coffee. There was a war on! And items like these were rationed. This meant that if World War II women and men wanted such things, they had to produce a certain amount of coupons, in addition to cold hard cash, before they could purchase them. These coupons were available in very limited amounts, and they all had expiration dates.
Rationing, the brainchild of the U.S. government’s Office of Price Administration (OPA), was designed to ensure that everybody had at least some access to the goods that were in high demand like sugar, butter, coffee, eggs, meat, fish, cheese, certain dried and processed foods, rubber, gasoline, and shoes, just to name a few. Rationing began in the spring of 1942, when the country was completely focused on supporting the war effort. Industries that had once produced cars, appliances, and frying pans were now manufacturing jeeps, tanks, and airplanes. Huge factories, recently built, were running day and night, seven days a week, churning out military equipment, ships, planes, and the endless gear needed by soldiers and sailors. All of this ramped-up production put a huge strain on U.S. resources, and for civilians created major shortages of just about everything.
Here’s how the rationing system worked: Let’s say you’re one of America’s World War II women. Each month, you and every other person in your household (including infants) are allotted 48 “blue points” for foods that are canned, dried, or bottled, and 64 “red points” for meat, fish, and dairy products. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to find these foods. Shortages are rampant. But even if you do find them, chances are good that you’ll stand in long lines at the local grocery store, hoping to score a decent piece of meat or a pound of coffee before they disappear.
The first item that OPA rationed was sugar, in short supply because much of it is imported from the Philippines, which are now occupied by Japan. You’re allowed just one cup of sugar per week, which means you can pretty much forget about eating cake, pie, candy, or other sweets, except on special occasions. If you happen to be getting married in the near future, you’ll need to beg your friends and family for their sugar and butter coupons because the baker won’t make your wedding cake a hefty amount of them.
Careful planning of your meals is suddenly essential. Your meat allotment is about 2 pounds per week, depending on the scarcity of the cut of meat you’re coveting. This means that if you squander your family’s coupons on a fancy roast for Sunday dinner, everyone in your household might have to go without meat for the rest of the month. To compensate for the general lack of meat, you might start raising chickens and rabbits in your backyard, hoping to turn them into hearty future meals. You might also develop some recipes that use organ meats, which are cheaper and easier to find than regular cuts of meat. Vegetarian dishes are another option; many people have started observing “meatless Tuesdays.” And in a pinch, you might even consider venturing into the black market, where you can purchase plenty of coupons for whatever you want, as long as you’re willing to pay the high prices.
If you’re like the vast majority of Americans, as the war drags on you’ll most likely take rationing in your stride and simply find ways to do without. You’ll rarely complain because you know that whatever you give up could, in some small part, help the Allies win the war and ensure the safe return of the “boys.” And if that means giving up sugar or sirloin steak for the time being, well, that’s A-OK with you.
On October 29, 1943, First Lieutenant Lyndon Raff and eight other soldiers perished in a fiery plane crash in the hills of Burma while delivering supplies to air raid warning stations and guerilla fighters. The bodies of the soldiers, or what was left of them after the plane cartwheeled down the side of a hill and exploded, were buried later that day at the site of the crash, wrapped in little more than a few pieces of canvas.
Their remains lay in that shallow grave for more than two years, until late 1945, after the war ended and just as The Return of the World War II Dead Program was firing up. Just after Christmas, the remains were disinterred and brought down the hill to the temporary U.S. Military Cemetery at Kalaikunda, India, for identification and reburial.
The identification process was tough, to say the least. Victims of plane crashes are notoriously difficult to identify because severe impact and fiery explosions leave very little “raw material” to analyze. Today, DNA testing can produce conclusive results on even the smallest fragments of teeth, bones, hair, or blood. But back then, the identification of crash victims was heavily dependent on visually matching teeth to dental records. It’s not clear how the identification experts at Kalaikunda came up with their conclusion, but they were able to separate Lyndon’s remains and those of Corporal Max Hall from the other seven servicemen. However, there was no way to separate the two soldiers and establish individual identities. Their remains were designated “co-mingled” and, as such, were buried together in a common grave at Kalaikunda.
Two-and-a-half years would pass before the soldiers’ co-mingled remains were once again exhumed in April, 1948, and sent to the nearest processing station at Schofield Barracks in Oahu, Hawaii. Although it was clear that the remains belonged to Lyndon and Max Hall, at Schofield they were labeled “Unknown X-99 A” and “Unknown X-99 B.” Then the two “unknowns” were stored in a casket in U.S. Army Mausoleum No. 2 where, protected by 24-hour military guards, they lay waiting for their identities to be revealed. But standard methods of identification again proved useless: no one could establish separate identities for them.
The next stop was Schofield’s “big gun,” the Central Identification Laboratory, where Unknowns X-99 A and X-99 B underwent a more detailed scientific examination by an anthropologist. Ninety-nine percent of the remains brought to CIL were skeletal, and in the best-case scenario could reveal a person’s race, sex, height, approximate age, and weight. Larger bone fragments might show evidence of healed fractures or malformations that could be matched to prior injuries. Even if only a few pieces of bone remained, the anthropologist attempted to reassemble a skeleton or, in the case of a group, several skeletons. The hope was that, by using established height and weight information, it might be possible to attribute certain bones to a specific individual, so even the tiniest bits of bone matter were carefully measured and analyzed. Unfortunately, in the case of X-99 A and X-99 B, the process was like trying to assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle using a handful of sand.
When all scientific methods of identification had been exhausted, the official conclusion was that Unknowns X-99 A and X-99 B could not be identified separately. Therefore, they would forever be classified as a group containing the remains of First Lieutenant Lyndon O. Raff and Corporal Max K. Hall.
Their remains went back on the shelf where they sat for almost two more years before being returned to the U.S. for burial in January, 1950. By then, more than six years had elapsed since their deaths, an excruciatingly long and painful waiting period for their loved ones. But with 280,000 deceased soldiers and sailors scattered around the world waiting to be analyzed, identified, and brought back for burial, these two, like all the others, had to wait their turn. Get in line, soldier!