By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/3/2004 2:00:50 PM ET 2004-06-03T18:00:50

We gather here to pay tribute to sacrifice and valor, common cause and compassion, triumph and determination.  It has taken too long to erect a monument to symbolize the gratitude of a nation now and forevermore to those who answered the call at home and abroad in the greatest war the world has known.  A war the British military historian John Keegan calls the greatest single event in the history of mankind, fought on six of the seven continents, in the skies above them and on all the seas.  A war in which 50 million people perished in their homes and on battlefields a long way from home; in infernos at sea and planes falling from the sky; in gas ovens and in slave labor camps.  A war that for all of its cruelties and terrible costs was an epic struggle to defeat the maniacal fascism of Germany and the ruthless imperialism of Japan.  A just war and a great victory that will be remembered as long as history is recorded.

So it is fitting that we gather today around this handsome and evocative monument to such a noble undertaking.  But no monument, however polished or well positioned, can take the place of the enduring legacy of those we honor.  Their lives and how they lived them, the country they defended and loved and cared for all the rest of their days, that is the undeniable legacy of the men and women I call The Greatest Generation.

My declaration that this is the “greatest generation” is occasionally challenged, even by members of the generation.  My short answer is, “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

My longer answer can be found in their trials and triumphs.  At an early age they learned the harsh realities of deprivation and common cause during the Great Depression.  They quit school at an early age not to indulge their selfish interests but to put food on the table or shoes on their brothers and sisters.  They didn’t just double date; they went six and eight to a car to a dance or a movie where admission was maybe a dime.  They learned to live without more than with and as their children learned later, they never took a dollar for granted or spent one without thinking about it first.

There was no epidemic of American obesity during the Great Depression; many of the veterans here today will tell you the first thing they noticed about basic training was breakfast.  You could eat all you wanted.

Many will also tell you that before war came to America at Pearl Harbor, they were opposed to this country getting involved but when the Japanese attacked and the Germans declared war, they converted overnight — and transformed this country into a mighty military machine in uniform, in factories, in laboratories, shipyards, coal mines, in farm fields, shops and offices.

Men, women, young and old - everyone had a role.  Farm boys who had never been in airplanes were soon flying new bombers with four engines; surgical nurses were in front line MASH units, assisting in operations while being shelled; teenagers were wearing sergeants stripes and fighting from North Africa to Rome; guys from city streets were in close quarter combat in dense jungles; women were building ships and driving trucks; kids went without gum and new toys – and in too many cases, they lost fathers they never met.

In the halls of Congress and at the White House they bet the future of the country on the absolute necessity of an unconditional victory — while simultaneously planning for the new world that would come after with new international, political, financial and military institutions and alliances that emphasized cooperation and common goals.

And when victory was complete, this generation returned to this country and married in record numbers, went to college in record numbers, thanks to the brilliant idea of the GI Bill, gave us new industries, new art, new science – and supported the unprecedented idea that as military victors they must for political, economic and moral reasons re-build the shattered countries and confidence of their enemies.

They became the mobile generation, starting families in adopted states but many returned to the homes they’d left, to the comfort of their families and the familiarity of their communities. Wherever they settled they brought with them a discipline and maturity beyond their years, shaped by the hardships of a depression, the training and horrors of war.  They were conditioned to serve so they became the members of their school board or elders in their church; they ran for Governor, Congress, the Senate and the White House. They had given so much but they didn’t hesitate to give more because too many friends had died defending this way of life and system of government that is constantly renewed by good people willing to do the right thing.

They had ferocious political battles by day and one shared concern by nightfall: what’s best for the country. On some issues it took a little longer than on others for while this was The Greatest Generation, it was not perfect.

When the men came home it took them a while to fully appreciate the right of women to take their place at their side, whatever the endeavor.  And despite the unalloyed patriotism and courage of black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans and other people of color during the war, it took too long, much too long, to openly deal with the codified and practical inequalities of race.

When America was deeply divided by another war and a cultural upheaval, you in the Greatest Generation were bewildered and divided as well but you didn’t give up on the generation that came after you, your kids — as much as you wanted them to cut their hair, get married before they lived together and, for God’s sake, turn down the music.

Moreover, as the men and women of The Greatest Generation know first hand, not everyone in their own generation was up to standard.  There were the slackers and the cowards, the profiteers and the blowhards, bullies and boneheads.  But they’ve been forgotten now, lost in the pettiness of their behavior, overwhelmed by the sweeping and indisputable achievements of the authentic members of the generation we honor here today.

On a personal note I want to thank all of you for the privilege of sharing your stories and your lives; I’ve a wonderful career but nothing means as much to me as our association.  I am humbled by our relationship.

More broadly speaking, at this stage in my life and career, I want you to know the deep debt those of us in succeeding generations owe you for first giving so much of your youth, your families and your friends to war — and then so much of the rest of your days to your country and to the world.

So many of you have been reluctant to talk about those difficult days because the memories were too painful and because, as so many of you have said, you were lucky.  You survived; so many of your friends did not.  So you have felt an obligation, a duty, to them.  To live your life in a way that honors them.

We, in turn, have a duty to you.  To carry on this noble mission.

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