“We were not the greatest generation.”
Carl N. Platou, World War II veteran
Like the leaves falling from the oak tree out my window, World War II veterans are departing this life, perhaps for another. Each reading of the “obits” reveals fewer references to “proudly served in Europe” or “in South Pacific.”
I recall as a youngster witnessing the final passing of Civil War veterans, well into their 100s. They fought to save the Union and eliminate slavery. And I recall World War I vets who came back from Europe “not right.” They had seen too much and came home to the farm with a wan look, bachelors to the end. Or they were permanently affected by being gassed — all in the name of making the world safe for democracy, or the war to end all wars.
Today we have the Vietnam vets. They fought a war for Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, to no avail. Johnson knew he could not win it, yet he persisted. America’s first defeat. Soldiers of the Korean conflict at least had the satisfaction of “containing communism” and allowing South Korea to flourish under democratic capitalism. Kia, Hyundai and Samsung are everywhere.
Today we also have the post-9/11 servicemen and servicewomen. “Degrading and destroying” terrorists seems to be an unending endeavor. Like the Hundred Years’ War in the Middle Ages and so many others involving religion, the war on terrorism is likely to outlive all of us.
Thankfully, these service members have come home to a grateful public, despite unconventional call-ups of National Guard units. Committed men and women have, and are, serving with distinction — and death and disability.
Tom Brokaw wrote a book titled “The Greatest Generation.” Carl Platou — a World War II soldier who earned a Purple Heart, a Presidential Citation and a Bronze Star for bravery as a paratrooper and a demolition expert — took strong exception to this label. His reasoning is reassuring. But to understand it, step into his oral history:
Carl and his brother survived the Great Depression, despite the family being broken into parts. The Platou brothers lived in the attic of a neighbor and used the Shell station nearby for a washroom. The parents lived elsewhere but found a way to have one meal a week with their sons. Carl turned out to be a state champ at wrestling, which would prepare him to fight the Japanese, night after night, in foxholes during the Battle of Leyte. His arms showed the scars of hand-to-hand knife fighting.
Of the 100 paratroopers in his unit, 10 survived the sweep of Leyte. At the end, he and his buddy were sitting under a tree when a sniper shot Carl’s partner through the forehead. Carl never lost awareness of being the one spared.
Carl returned to a grateful America. The finest restaurant in San Francisco refused to let him buy his dinner. With the GI Bill, he finished his education at the University of Minnesota. He bought a house with GI financing. But, most important, he and so many other World War II vets came home to build the greatest society anyone had ever known. Carl built Fairview Health Systems into what it is today. For him and so many others, nothing was impossible.
Which brings me to Carl today. Before his death in 2012, he was incensed by the notion of being a member of the “Greatest Generation.” This survivor of Leyte, parachuting out of an airplane with a broken leg (because he didn’t want to let his buddies down) — this product of the Great Depression and servant who built a first-rate hospital from almost nothing — said this:
“Every generation will have its challenges. Each new generation will find a way to prevail. I look at my grandkids and future generations, and it’s a disservice to them to say you will never be the greatest.”
Paul Olson, of St. Paul, is a retired president of the Blandin Foundation.