Within a single week in July, 2014 I attended the funerals of two World War II veterans: RADM Thomas Bass, who served for many years as the Director of Stratford Hall, and my uncle, John Reber. During World War II (WWII), Admiral Bass commanded a submarine chaser, SC 676, in the Mediterranean Sea. He participated in the North African campaign and in the Allied invasions of Sicily, Italy, and Southern France. He also campaigned with the Yugoslav partisans in the German-occupied areas of Yugoslavia. My uncle served in Italy with the 85th Infantry Division, 329th Field Artillery, Battery B. I will miss them both. Admiral Bass was a Virginia gentleman of the first order. His service to Stratford Hall was heroic. He had three “tours” as Director that spanned 15 years, a record not likely to be equaled. My uncle was like a lot of GIs who came home from the war, attended college on GI bill, married, had a family, and never wanted to talk about his wartime experiences – until just before he died.
The confluence of these two events made me think of something that is evident to anyone who understands demographics; we are rapidly losing the generation of Americans who won WWII. Over sixteen million Americans served our nation in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard from 1941 to 1945. As of 2014 less than one million are still with us. By 2024 the number will decline to less than a hundred thousand. By 2036 fewer than four hundred will remain, less than an infantry battalion, according to historian Rick Atkinson.
The numbers tell a sad tale. What is less understood is how our nation will be changed by the absence of this generation of Americans. Because of their leadership and sacrifice, we have enjoyed a period of peace and affluence unprecedented in world history.They also ensured that the United States truly became a beacon for peace, freedom and prosperity-the “city upon a hill” imagined by John Winthrop in 1621 and the “empire of liberty” envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The generations who have followed what some have called “the greatest generation” have, well, made quite hash of it. It is hard not to look back with a sense of foreboding and melancholy.
I also fear that we are losing something else with their departure, and that is our sense of how the past should guide the present. It didn’t take a lot of persuasion to convince a member of the World War II generation that preserving our nation’s past was important and worthy of support. It is because of their generosity that many historic sites exist, including Stratford Hall. They had first-hand experience of the dreadful cost a madman and his henchmen could inflict when they hijacked and manipulated the history of great people for evil means. I am asked frequently what the Civil War was about. It occurred because there was no shared idea of what it meant to be an American. Like the WWII generation, Civil War veterans were devoted to ensuring future generations would not forget the terrible cost of that conflict. They also understood that preserving this history would take more than words, it required something physical, like buildings or monuments – places like Stratford Hall.
Since the Civil War generation has long departed, I encourage you to find a World War II veteran and ask them whether they think preserving our nation’s past is important. I also suggest that you be quick about it; it will not be long before the last old soldier has gone to his grave.
Paul C. Reber, Executive Director
Editor’s Note: The above article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The Chronicle, the Stratford Hall Newsletter.