“The Greatest Generation” may be a cliche, but it is an accurate one. I am 61 years old and like everyone my age I grew up in a world full of World War II veterans, my father included. My generation flourished in the shadow of the war. Only now do many of us have even a dim appreciation of the enormity of that conflict and the sacrifices of the millions who served - and “dim appreciation” might be an optimistic assessment.
Last week I got an email from my church with regard to the death of a fellow parishioner. It struck me immediately that Bob Seiler was the last World War II veteran I knew. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His colleagues and friends have all passed. My father-in-law, a Coast Guard veteran, died a few years ago. In July we buried my uncle who was that last family member who had served. A few years ago, my church still had a few. I recall one Memorial Day service when the veterans in the church were honored. After being called to attention by a retired Marine, we all went down the center aisle, in step (mostly). I was awed - humbled really - by the fact that the man beside me had been an infantry sergeant who landed in Normandy one day after D Day. Another like my father had served on destroyers in the Navy. All those veterans are gone now.
As his obituary describes, Bob Seiler left college in 1941 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He ended the war as a Major, having flown 33 combat missions and commanding a squadron. For those with any knowledge of the air war in Europe, that brief description speaks volumes. From that, he went on to be a minister - and that also speaks volumes. What is remarkable is that his story is not so remarkable. Millions served, in short order creating virtually from scratch the greatest military force the world had ever seen. The vastness of that undertaking is still hard to grasp. I remember my father once telling me about putting a new ship into service. Of the 200 or so men serving on that destroyer only six had ever been to sea before and that included my father who had only a couple of years of service. They had eight weeks to be ready. I was incredulous and asked my father how they did things like that without people getting maimed or killed in the training process. In his laconic old Navy officer sort of way, he simply took another sip of his drink and commented “we didn’t.” The U.S. trained thousands of pilots in World War II. I read recently that more pilots were killed in training than died in combat - and that is really not surprising. Individuals like Bob Seiler, my father and countless others took tremendous risks and made huge sacrifices for us - and many made the ultimate sacrifice. It may seem trite to say, but they really did defeat the forces of evil. People like Bob Seiler came home from that horrific war and sought to make the world a better place and he did. I can attest to that personally. Others like my father stayed on in the service through the Cold War. They kept us safe in a time when safety was not at all certain.
In their own often quiet ways, men like Bob Seiler, my father and their peers were giants. Those are big shoes to fill. Sadly, I suspect that those of us who have come after them do not come close to doing so. We owe so much to that “Greatest Generation” and that is something that should never be forgotten..