Minnesota's Greatest Generation

General John W. Vessey: Remembering and Reflecting

On the occasion of the opening of the Minnesota Historical Society's Minnesota's Greatest Generation exhibit on May 20, 2009, Project Advisory Committee Chair, General John W. Vessey, Jr. addressed a group of Society friends on the topic of the "greatest" generation, and that generation's impact on America as we know it today.


"Remembering and Reflecting"


Thanks for the kind introduction and thanks for the welcome. It is an honor and a pleasure to be with you. It is presumptuous for me to try to speak for Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, but I’m going to do it anyway. Tom Brokaw’s sobriquet, "Greatest Generation", seems embarrassingly overdrawn. Most of us from that generation would suggest that it is a title for which we were not competing, and even if it were correct, it wouldn’t be "Minnesota Nice" for us to use it. Hence, at least for the remainder of the evening, I’m going to call it, "the generation." But, Nina, please don’t change the title of the exhibit; whether it’s right or wrong, please continue to humor us. On behalf of the generation reared during the Great Depression, and who fought World War II, and who shaped the nation and the world for the last half of the 20th Century, many thanks to the Historical Society for preserving and displaying the story of those momentous events and the people who shaped them and were shaped by them. Nina, to you and your team, thanks, and a loud "Well done!" The exhibit is superb. Even more important, the interviews, the records, and the artifacts you’ve preserved will be invaluable to future generations, as they study the lessons of those important years and events.

Additionally, we of "the generation", as well as all Minnesotans, owe very special thanks to the Historical Society’s members and friends who have generously supported this project and made it possible. Many of you are here tonight. Thanks! Thanks for your investment in a project that will yield great benefit for the citizens of Minnesota. We salute all of you. You are all very special, but, I would like to raise a hand in a special salute to one of you who is not with us tonight, that great friend of the Society, and my good friend, Gene Sit. Gene was too young for "the generation" and he was not a veteran; yet, he was an ardent supporter of preserving the State's and Nation's heritage and helping and honoring the men and women who defended the Nation. Not only did he and his wife, Gail, support the Society and this project very generously, the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund Gene started continues to assist Minnesota veterans of today's wars. Gene's death last summer was a great loss to the community and the Society. Gene's wife Gail; son, Ron, daughter Debbie, and son-in-law Peter Berge are with us tonight. Many thanks to the Sit family for its support of the Society, and this project.

Some years ago, I played in a charity golf tournament in which Yogi Berra was also a player. We out-of-town guests were all billeted in the same hotel and were transported to the golf course on a bus. The first morning, all the players, except Yogi were on the bus at the appointed time. After about a fifteen minute wait, our guide from the tournament staff went searching for the absent Hall-of-Famer. The guide and Yogi soon arrived at the bus, and Yogi apologized to all. He explained that his alarm had not worked properly, and that the "wake-up" call he had requested of the hotel staff had not arrived. He then said, "D'you know what? If I hadn't woke up, I'd still be asleep!" Like most everyone, I had heard and heard of "Yogi Berraisms" for many years, but had assumed they were the products of comedy writers. The profundity of his declaration to the bus riders changed my mind, and I realized that I was on that bus with one of the great contemporary American philosophers. Since then I've searched diligently for those wonderful, tersely-stated, axioms of Yogi, the teacher. One that has some usefulness right now is, "You can observe a lot by looking." That is certainly true for the Society's wonderful exhibit. The visitors will see a lot, simply by looking. I'd like to share a few of my observations with you.

64 years ago tonight, I, perhaps like others in the room tonight, was in a processing center near Naples trying to get an early ride home. The war in Italy had ended two weeks earlier, the very day my name had come up in our outfit's home leave lottery. We'd been overseas for three and a half years. Eligibility for home leave was on points earned basis. Time overseas was the major contributor; wounds and valor awards were also considered, and I think married soldiers were given some priority. Because we were in combat early in the war, our outfit had a large number of us with high point totals; consequently a lottery system was established. My fortune, or lack thereof, in that lottery has kept me out of casinos for the rest of my life. In the two weeks after the end of the war in Italy, and a dozen days after the end in Germany, I had made my way via supply truck to the Division rear echelon near Livorno where I received my home-leave orders and my immediate duty assignment as officer-in-charge of a boat load of German prisoners-of-war to be taken to Naples.

The world, at least in Europe and North Africa, had changed. It would be less than three more months before the war against Japan ended. I remember seeing much later reproductions of photos showing the elation in London and New York at the news that the war in Europe had ended, but for me and those around me, the end was difficult to grasp. The thought that I would never return to my war-time division for further combat duty never occurred to me. Few of the German prisoners on the boat to Naples seemed to understand the significance of the surrender. My high school German got me through a conversation with one who did. One of the officers asked me, "Why are we going to Naples? The war has ended," he said. "All of us should go home." I could only agree with him and told him that I hoped Naples would be the first stop on the way home for all of us. A week in that center in Naples had me feeling that my prospects of getting home soon were probably not much better than those of the German officer prisoner on the ship. Somehow it all got straightened out, and not only I, but millions of others did get home that summer.

Early August saw the first and only use of nuclear weapons, and the subsequent end to the war with Japan. World War II, the world’s bloodiest, costliest, and deadliest war ever had come to an end. About 70 million of the World's people had been killed. Most of the great cities of Europe and East Asia had been severely damaged, and many of them had been reduced to rubble. A tidal wave of political, social, and economic change washed over the world. The death knell for colonialism had rung. New international institutions, such as the UN, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund which continue to influence the world order today were about to be spawned. As I think I said four years ago when the Society started this venture, World War II both literally and figuratively took the world apart and put it together again in a different form. It was the defining event of the 20th Century!

12% of America’s population served in the Armed Forces. Today, an effort comparable to World War II would have over 30 million men and women in today’s Armed Forces. While the traditional male farm and factory work force was in the Armed Forces, American women manned the factories to produce the arms for us and our allies. In Minnesota they mined iron ore, constructed millions of tons of ammunition, built gliders and landing craft, and took on hundreds of jobs that were traditionally for men. Nationally, many ship yards launched a new ship each week. Aircraft factories produced nearly 100,000 airplanes a year. To put that number into perspective, the 40 airlines operating out of the United States today have a combined fleet of about 6000 aircraft, obviously acquired over a number of years. Back to the war years, tanks, trucks, and cannons rolled off assembly lines operating 24 hours per day. Our farms fed us and our allies. Nearly 50% of our economy went to the war effort. 1,000,000 American service members were casualties; 300,000 were killed in action; another 115,000 died from other causes; about 80,000 remain missing, today. For America the effort was huge.

The sacrifices were great, and our casualties affected every community. Yet our sacrifices pale when compared with those of many of the other countries involved. Except for Oahu, Wake, Guam, and the Philippines, America was spared physical destruction while the cities of Europe and East Asia lay in ruins. At least nine nations had over 1 million killed, and both China and the Soviet Union had over 20 million killed. For Germany, if one counts military and civilian deaths, wounded, missing, and prisoners of war, about 30% of the population were casualties. The casualty chart in Wikipedia 51 nations with World War II casualties. It was, indeed a world war with both enormous costs and consequences.

When we talk about "the generation," many of us, including me, have a tendency to think primarily about the 16 million, primarily men, who served in the Armed Forces. That, of course, is a mistake. Hardly any American family was untouched by the war. Those who weren’t in the Armed Forces were supporting the Armed Forces or supporting those supporting the Armed Forces. The Society's exhibit captures that point very well.

I want to make a few observations about the 16 million Americans who served in the Armed Forces because that is who I saw, not all of them, but a sample. They fought battles in most of the earth's time zones, many in places most Americans had never heard of before the war. They operated huge ships. They flew four-engine bombers and the hottest fighter planes yet developed. They crewed tanks and cannons. They fought in jungles, deserts, mountains, forests, plains, and cities. They operated railroads, truck lines, ports, telephone systems, and provided governments in occupied cities and territories. Who were they, or perhaps I ought to ask, "Who were we?"

We grew up during the Great Depression. Simple diets and austere living conditions were the norm for most of us. Our life expectancy at birth was about 54 years. Most of us were from rural backgrounds. Most of our families were renters, not home owners. More of our families had outdoor toilets than had indoor plumbing. We were about 4 inches shorter than the male enlistees in today's armed forces. Many of us had bad teeth. Our average education at time of entering service was one year of high school. The America from which we came had only 160,000 people with baccalaureate or higher university educations, and just 24% of the population of 130 million had high school diplomas or better. We had to learn a lot in a hurry. A few of the 16 million were able to move directly from civilian work into military jobs, auto mechanics for example. For most, that was not the case. The jump from one cylinder diesel tractors to four- engine bombers was a big leap. Frankly, if one were going to list desirable qualities for a potential greatest generation contest, it is difficult to see how we’d have made the cut.

In 1944, a few weeks after D-Day in Normandy, President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, commonly called the GI Bill. It provided 52 weeks of unemployment insurance, some home ownership assistance, and educational help and incentives for honorably discharged veterans. The war was far from over, then, but Roosevelt could foresee an ending, and the possibility of discharging 16 million young males into an economy that didn’t have jobs for them. The GI Bill passed the Congress by a very narrow margin. Most of the opposition came from those who thought 52 weeks of $20 weekly unemployment insurance would induce sloth, and from higher education leaders who were convinced it would dilute our university education system fatally.

When the war ended with an Allied victory, the Veterans came home and many used the various benefits of the GI Bill. Over 50% used the education benefits. Two years after the war ended 49% of college admissions were veterans. By 1950 the nation had more than tripled the number of people with baccalaureate or higher degrees. By the time the WWII Vets eligibility expired, the United States had gained 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, and 67,000 medical doctors, and millions schooled in other professions and trades. The nation had become one of widespread home ownership. Thousands of successful new businesses had been started. The total GI Bill investment was $14.5 billion, less than 10% of the current AIG bailout.

Of those 16 million Vets, estimates vary about the number alive today, but around 2 million seems safe. We've exceeded our original life expectancy by well over 30 years. We're moving around with repaired hearts, stents in our arteries, pace makers in our chests, and we're mowing our lawns and playing golf and tennis on replaced knees and hips. Quite a few of us are still working.

How did all this happen? Why is American life expectancy over 20 years greater than when we were born? Why did our children not have to worry themselves sick about diseases like polio for their children as we did for them during the epidemic? Why are we able to send mail to our overseas friends at 186,000 miles per second, essentially free, instead of paying a high price for boat borne mail arriving in weeks? Why are we able to solve enormously complex mathematical problems with a speed of several hundred trillion floating point calculations per second instead of laboring for days with tabular logarithmic tables as we did at the beginning of the war? Why do our grandchildren gasp and roll their eyes when we try to explain the unimaginable differences between life in America in the 1920s and 30s and their lives today? How come we eighty and ninety-year-olds are still bouncing around?

The answers, to all those questions, I believe, can be traced to a number of factors. Three of the principals seem to be: (1) the annealing of "the generation" by the Great Depression hardships, followed by (2) the enormous effort of "the generation" to meet the immense challenges of World War II, then capped by (3) the post-war education of "the generation." For America, whatever the education portion of that $14.5 billion GI Bill investment was, it was probably the most transforming investment the US Congress ever approved. It abundantly raised the education level of the population, and it profoundly altered the university education system of the Nation. Those newly educated WWII Veterans became the scientists, medical doctors, lawyers, educators, business leaders, and political leaders who led our Nation and the world through the last half of the Twentieth Century. Remember, these were the people whose average educational level was one year of high school when they entered service. Further, they were the parents of the "Boomers," a generation that continued to move toward an even higher level of education. By 2003, over 40 million Americans had baccalaureate or higher university educations. Although it took some years to really understand it and make it work, the experience of the war years also demonstrated that women and ethnic minorities rightfully deserved opportunities to compete for positions of high responsibility. Today the Nation is the beneficiary.

Many of you like me, probably watched network TV news Monday evening showing astronauts repairing the Hubble telescope enabling us to look farther into the universe than ever before. Some may see it as "a stretch", but I believe a line can be traced directly from the enlistment of those rural youngsters from the Great Depression through the ensuing years of the War and the post war education explosion to the astronauts fixing the Hubble. It is the story and legacy of "the generation" and maybe it is OK to stick the modifier, "greatest" in there. The Minnesota Historical Society has captured it magnificently with this exhibit and the archived materials of the project.

Thanks to all of you for your help in getting it done, and many thanks, again, to Nina and the Staff for their great work.


Saylor, Thomas, Daniel Borkenhagen, and Thomas Brandt, Oral history interviews of the Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Oral History Project. Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Collections, 2001-2003.