The Greatest Generation’s Last Hurrah

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2014

The G.I. Generation, born between 1901 to 1924, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew up in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II, considered to be the largest and deadliest global military conflict in the world’s history. The world-wide war directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries.

With the enactment of a formal declarations of war in Dec. 1941, the ranks of the United States military, by draft and voluntary enlistment, ultimately swelled to
16 million soldiers. Ultimately, those serving in World War II came from every state, ethnic group and race, from poor and well-to-do families.

World War II veterans put their youth on hold to defend the country. Their ages ranged from ages 17 (with parental permission) to 37 years. When discharged a grateful country’s G.I. Bill Education benefits would send them to college, propelling them into professional careers, giving them a good income to raise a family and to economically spur the economy. .

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

The Last Man Standing

In their middle years, America’s “The Greatest Generation” would see the passing of the last Civil War veteran. On August 2, 1956, the 20th century veterans would learn about the death of Albert Henry Woolson, 106, the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, who fight in the nation’s bloody American Civil War. In 1864, Woolson had enlisted as a drummer boy in Company C 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Woolson is considered to be the last surviving Civil War veteran on either side whose status is undisputed. At least three men who died after him claimed to be Confederate veterans but their veteran status has been questioned. .

According to the August 3, 1956 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, upon Woolson’s death, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

In 2011, a World War I veteran was nationally recognition, like Civil War Veteran Woolson, for being the last American doughboy. Frank Buckles, 101, had the distinction of being the last survivor of 4.73 million Americans who fought in the “War to End All Wars.” The 16-year old enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in France. Buckles left military service with the rank of corporal.

In his final years, Buckles served as Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. As chairman, he called for a World War I memorial similar to other war memorials inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. He would campaign for the District of Columbia War Memorial to be renamed the National World War I Memorial.

Upon Buckles passing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, issued a release, stating, We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated,” adds Shinseki.

The Twilight Years of WWII Veterans

On November 11, there were fewer aging World War II veterans attending ceremonies held throughout the nation honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

Over the next two decades, America’s World War II soldiers are dying quickly. We will again see another generation of soldiers passing, like Woolson or Buckles.

At the end of World War II, there were 16 million who served our nation in that horrific war. Thirty years ago, when President Ronald Reagan traveled to the battle site of Pointe du Hoc, located at a 100 ft cliff overlooking the English Channel on the coast of Normandy in northern France, there were only 10.7 million U.S. veterans left. The President came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Normandy invasion, recognizing the American Ranger team that took heavy casualties in capturing the German-occupied cliff.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, our frail World War II veterans are dying at a quick rate of just 555 a day. This means there are only 1.34 million veterans remaining. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal battle experiences. When this happens their stories, like Woolson and Buckles, will only be told in history books or by television documentaries or by historians and academics.

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day ceremonies and activities were held in 15 Rhode Island communities to honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, there are only 3,951 World War II veterans alive in the Ocean State. The elderly veteran’s numbers dwindle at these celebrations and even at their reunions because of their frailty and health issues.

We are posed to see a generation of veterans vanish right before our eyes. I say, cherish them while you can. Urge those around you who fought in World War II to tell stories and oral histories, for the sake of future generations. They have much to say, we have much to learn.

The National World War II Museum in Louisiana. To learn more about the Greatest Generation and the global war they fought in, go to

My commentary is dedicated to Second Lt. Frank M. Weiss, my father, who died in 2003 at 89 years old.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at


Your Later Years: Death Takes Two American Icons

Published in All Pawtucket All the Time on June 27, 2008

In recent weeks, office conversations shifted from the Celtic’s win, the Boston Red Sox games, and Democratic candidate Obama’s run for presidency to focus on the untimely deaths of two  national  icons in the entertainment and broadcast industry.  Baby boomers were shocked when a sudden heart attack, on June 13th, took the life of 58 year-old Tim Russert.  They were even more dismayed when George Carlin, the comedic voice of their generation, died 9 days later.

“Did you take your daily aspirin? Or “how high is your  cholesterol?” or “blood pressure?” were questions swiring around the water cooler.  Many of the Pepsi generation figured that if a youthful-looking broadcast journalist, Russert or and older Carlin,” America’s Funny Man” suddently died of heart disease it might halppen to them, too.

Making Their Marks in the World

Russert, a resident of Northwest Washington, was one of the nation’s most visible baby boomers, serving for almost 17 years as Managing Editor and Moderator of the highly acclaimed “Meet the Press” and political anayyst for “NBC Nightly News.”

In his early politicl creer as a lawyer, russert worked as a special council to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and as a conunsel to Gov. Mario M. Como of New York.

A lifelong Buffalo Bills Football fan, Russert, a practicing Catholic, wrote an autobiography Big Russ and Me in 2004, a book about growing up in South Buffalo and the importance of his hardworking father, a World War II veteran who worked two jobs after the war to support his family. Russert’s father taught him the significance of family values and never to take the short cut to accomplish a goal. A book, Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons, published one year later would incorporate letters received from his fans in response to his first book about their own experiences with their fathers.

Russert also received 48 honorary doctorates and racked up scores of awards for his journalistic reporting.

On June 22nd, an irrervent standup comedian, George Carlin, 71, whose cutting social commentary and assute summation of life, who oftentimes stretched both the boundaries of free speech died of heart failure in Santa Monica, California.

Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine was key to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, F.C.C. v Pacifica Foundation, in which a narrow majority ruled the government has a right to regulate “indecent” material on the public airways.

During his long life, the very hip Carlin was recognized for his cutting edge comedy by receiving two America Comedy Awards, the Funniest Male Performer in a TV Special (1997 and 1998) and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy (2001).

Carline was the first host of Saturday Night Live. He made countless television appearances during his career.  As a prolific writer, Carlin wrote five books and produced 23 comedy records, winning four Grammy Awards. Throughout his career wit/word play, political satire and black comedy would be woven into his monologues performed in major nightclubs and theaters in New York and Los Vegs. He also starred in 14 HBO comedy specials.  Recently he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and was to receive the award at the Kennedy Center in November 2008.

Touching Lives

Lars Platt, 51, of Platt Realty Group, and  his wife Carrie, a television producer, were shocked with the sudden passing of Russert. “He was so close to our age,” Platt says, noting that his wife had worked with him, too.

Platt said that the unanticipated death of “an icon in the news reporting and broadcast industry,” made the Providence couple think of their mortality and “how important it is to be present in everday life.”

Carlin’s passing also put “a chink in my armor, too,” says Platt. “His humor was part of the fabric of my life growing up.”

Forty-year old Matt Thomas, Manager of Doherty’s East Avenue Café, remembers secretly listening to Carlin’s routine ion a transistor radio in six grade.  Thomas, laughing so hard because of the humor caught the attention of his parents who promptly confiscated his radio, sending him immediately to bed.  Fast forward to his early adult years, Thomas would subscribe to HBO Cable when Carlin’s Specials were scheduled ultimately canceling his cable contract after watching it.

Thomas, who considers himself Carlin’s biggest fan in Pawtucket, attended the comedian’s last theater performance last week in Las Vegas. “It was tremendous,” he said, joking how his sides hurt when he walked out after the show. “He had a lot of fun on the state and even put in a few new bits into his routine.”

As to his impact on society Thomas will always remember Carlin as someone who “shed the light into dark corners that people did not want to look at.”

“If you talked to any comic, they worshiped the ground he walked on,” Thomas said. “He really opened up a lot of doors for others to come through.”  Carlin took the comedic torch when Lenny Bruce died , Thomas says. “We’ll just have to see who will pick that torch up now.”

With their premature deaths, bereaved colleagues, friends, and family members went on the nation’s airways to publicity tout Russert and Carlin’s personal and professional accomplishments. Statements after they died were posted on hundreds of websites and printed in tens of thousands of articles. It is my hope that America’s Journalist and Comedian heard these praises when they were alive.