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'You had to do your part'
'The Greatest Generation'
by Tom Brokaw
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Wednesday, January 20, 1999 3:16:38 PM
(CNN) -- In "The Greatest Generation" you'll meet people whose everyday lives reveal how a generation persevered through war, and were trained by it, and then went on to create the America we have today. By NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, the book celebrates a generation united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values -- duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and, above all, responsibility for oneself.
Three women and how they served
Marion Rivers's life was centered on her family, her job, and her small city of Attleboro, Massachusetts, until the war caught up to America. Then the company for which she worked, General Plate Division of Metals and Controls Corporation, was immediately forced to convert from making rolled gold plate for jewelry to producing technical instruments for military purposes.
She remembers the pride of all the employees when the company was awarded a large E for excellence and the Army and Navy organized a ceremony to present a banner to be flown outside the plant. "I can still see that flag," Marion says, "snapping on the flagpole whenever I entered and left the building." She believes it was the last time "in the history of our country when a full-blown spirit of true patriotism was in every heart."
Claudine "Scottie" Scott shared that spirit of patriotism during her freshman year at the University of Kansas in the autumn of 1940. "It was a fun, exciting time," she says, "but by the following fall, the campus had changed considerably. All of the boys were gone." Scottie decided to enlist in the Navy's female auxiliary, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), and when the student newspaper, The Daily Kansan, asked why, she recalled a cartoon of two WACs walking down the street, one saying to the other, "I want to tell my grandchildren I was more than a pinup girl in the Great War."
Scottie wanted to be in on the action as well. As she says, "My generation was highly patriotic. Back when I was in junior high the words ENTER TO LEARN, GO FORTH TO SERVE were carved at the entrance to the school. Those words affected me in many ways. I served."
She applied for a commission in the WAVES. Not only was she commissioned, she was assigned to the prestigious duty of serving on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She was an administrative assistant and a courier, delivering highly classified papers to the White House every day. "I went to a basement room - the War Room - and they'd open the door only six inches to take the report from me. It was a log of the fighting going on all over the world."
Alison Ely was doing graduate work in California. She was from a prominent Oregon family, and when Pearl Harbor was attacked her parents wanted her to return to Portland. She had other ideas. She got a job at an Oakland, California, shipyard, saying now, "You had to do your part."
In Attleboro, just outside her company's plant, Marion Rivers came to know the war effort through the troop trains that often stopped on a nearby siding, headed for Camp Myles Standish, a major point of embarkation for Europe.
"I want to tell my grandchildren I was more than a pinup girl in the Great War."
-- Claudine "Scottie" Lingelbach
When the trains stopped, the women in the plant would be summoned to a conference room to assemble baskets of fruit, candy, gum, and cigarettes for the GIs. Marion and the others would first head for the ladies' room "to remove our silk stockings, which were as scarce as hen's teeth - shredding those stockings would have been catastrophic." Bare-legged, they scuttled up the cinders on the steep railroad bed. The GIs, she remembers, cheered as she and the other young women distributed the baskets, laughing and waving at the young men who were headed for the unknown. "Later we'd be back in the office, covered with coal dust," Marion says, "but we loved it."
America in the forties was a nation of railroad tracks and trains. Railroad stations in small towns and cities were crowded with men in uniform, their wives and sweethearts giving a last embrace before the trains departed for a distant port and for the war in Europe or the Pacific. Later, those same trains returned with the young men, now greatly changed. They brought home the wounded and they bore the caskets of those who didn't make it. Marion remembers later in the war, when the trains materialized again in Attleboro, this time headed in the opposite direction. These trains had no troops cheering. The young women didn't scramble up the steep embankments with baskets of fruit and candy. The shades were drawn on the returning trains. "They didn't stop," Marion recalls. "These were the wounded coming home."
On the West Coast, Alison Ely was getting an entirely different view of the war. In the shipyard, she was assigned to the administrative offices, but that was boring and tedious. This highly educated daughter of Oregon affluence asked to go to work on the assembly line and stuck with her request even though the executive in charge grumbled, "All she'll ever do is get married."
She was assigned to work on the urgent construction of huge oil tankers. Her job was keeping track of the welding process, which meant mastering a complicated set of blueprints and diagrams. Her training was cursory at best. Forced to improvise her understanding, she often took other women workers into the ladies' room, where they labored together over the schematics until they figured out the intricate requirements.
In Washington, Scottie's interest in the fighting went well beyond the messages she carried from war room to war room. Her boyfriend from the University of Kansas, Dale Lingelbach, was a second lieutenant with the Army's 9th Infantry in England. She knew he was scheduled to be part of the Normandy invasion.
Because she knew the plans for D-Day, when she was asked if she'd ever like to attend a White House press conference, she chose that day, June 6, 1944. She remembers it was in the Oval Office and President Roosevelt's little Scottish terrier, Fala, was running free through the small crowd assembled there. She also remembers FDR, then in the last year of his life, "dressed in all white, with white hair and a very ruddy complexion."
Earlier that day FDR shared with the nation his prayer for the success of D-Day. In a radio broadcast he said, "In this poignant moment I ask you to join with me in prayer; Almighty God: our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set on a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.... They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph. They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until the victory is won."
It was a long and heartfelt prayer and it is difficult in this day of instant communication from the battlefield to appreciate fully the absence of information about just what was happening there on the beaches of Normandy. Perhaps it was just as well, for D-Day was chaos, a bloody hell. The anxieties of those at home were high enough just listening to the somber and candid prayer of the president and the stream of news bulletins on the radio.
My mother remembers going to a hairdresser that morning and finding the young woman distraught, near collapse in tears. Her fiancé, she explained, was a paratrooper and she was sure he was taking part in the invasion. In fact, he was, and he survived. Several weeks later he sent her his parachute and told her to have a wedding dress made from it.
About the same time, Scottie was notified that her boyfriend, Dale, had been seriously wounded by German artillery as his unit pushed across Europe. When he was shipped home, they were married in September 1945, at the Richmond, Virginia, hospital where he spent two years recovering from his wounds. Scottie had loved her wartime assignment in Washington, but she wanted to be married and raise a family.
In Massachusetts, Marion Rivers and her friends spent long hours at the factory and then joined the rest of Attleboro in providing a home away from home for the troops from nearby Camp Myles Standish. They invited them to their homes for holidays or a Sunday meal; occasionally there would be an ice skating party on a local pond. "Once a week several buses filled with young women and our ever present chaperones would take us to wonderful dances on the base. Big-name bands on their way overseas to entertain the troops would play," Marion remembers.
On one occasion a familiar young man insisted on dancing with Marion, all the while saying, "Betcha don't know who I am." Of course she did. It was Mickey Rooney.
Other memories linger in a darker corner. Once at a dance the young women were asked how many could type. Marion volunteered. "We were taken to the camp hospital where all the beds and stretchers were filled with the wounded. They were being shipped to hospitals near their homes and we rolled typewriters from bed to bed, taking information off dog tags, talking to the men, placing phone calls for them. I have never forgotten the sight of so many broken bodies. I wondered how many of them had been on those trains going off to war when we ran up the railroad banks with our baskets of fruit and candy. That evening turned into twenty-four hours, and I think I remember every moment."
"You had to do your part."
-- Alison Ely Campbell
"A full-blown spirit of patriotism was in every heart."
-- Marion Rivers Nittel
Alison Ely married midway through the war and left the shipyard to follow her husband, John W. Campbell, to training camps before he shipped out for the Pacific. It was the beginning of a life of learning to fend for herself, including getting to the hospital on her own when their baby was due, with no other family around.
When Scottie's husband, Dale, was released from the hospital, they moved to Schenectady, New York, where he had a job with General Electric. Before long they decided they wanted to return to the Midwest. They moved to Carthage, Missouri, a small, quiet town and he went to work for the Smith Brothers company, the famous cough drop concern.
It was a pleasant, prosperous life. They had two children: a girl, Cynthia, and a son, Randy. Dale was promoted to vice president. The future looked bright, but at the age of forty-five, Scottie's carefully ordered world came apart. Dale contracted melanoma and died. Scottie faced a world not very friendly to single women.
She had difficulty obtaining credit after Dale died simply because she was a widow. Sears gave her a hard time. So did a pharmacy where she tried to open a charge account. She was stunned and angry. She learned not to tell businesses of her marital status. "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. You can give up or decide to do something with your life. I had a degree in business administration but I knew I would never rise higher than secretary, so I thought, Where can a woman make the most money?"
This was 1968. Job opportunities for women had yet to catch up with the rising tide of feminism. Like many women of her generation, Scottie is strong and self-reliant but a little reluctant to be closely identified with the women's movement. She speaks for many in her age group when she says, "I'm not a radical person because I believe that has done more to turn people off." At the same time she's quick to add, "But I've always believed in equal access to jobs." Still, she was practical enough to realize that her choices were limited to what were considered to be women's jobs in a community the size of Carthage.
So Scottie went the traditional route and qualified for a teacher's certificate. Besides, it was where she could bring to life that junior high motto from so long ago, "Enter to learn, go forth to serve."
She became a civics teacher at Neosho High in Carthage. She set out to bring to the children of the sixties and seventies the values that marked her generation. Patriotism. Respect for the presidency. Love of country. She felt a special obligation to tell them about World War II, the war of their parents. It was the beginning of the social upheaval of the sixties and seventies, but in Carthage she could still get the attention of the kids by staging mock political conventions. When she taught a section on the Roaring Twenties she came to class dressed as a flapper. Now, ruefully, she doubts she could have the same success.
It was hard enough, she says, to talk to the young people during Watergate. At first she believed in President Nixon and said so. When she realized he was lying, however, she shared her change of heart with her students. "It was hard, because I was trying to teach respect for the presidency." As for President Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Scottie says, "Watergate was hard enough, but what do you tell the students today?
"I don't think my teaching would be the same now," she says. "I learned about patriotism through my school and family and I don't think you can get those values across in schools now. It's a little square to say you're patriotic. I would like to think that if the United States were attacked we'd band together, but I'm not sure." If there's a common lament of this generation, that is it: where is the old-fashioned patriotism that got them through so much heartache and sacrifice?
Marion Rivers, who married Karl Nittel after the war, wonders about that when she visits cemeteries to decorate graves on Memorial Day. "They never found my husband's brother, who was lost at sea. For many years I kept his gold naval wings in my jewelry box. Recently I gave them to his daughter, who was just two months old when he died. She never knew him. The war never ends; there are so many memories." Marion's husband keeps his World War II Army uniform hanging neatly in his closet wherever their live, a mute reminder of a time when he answered the call to duty.
Marion and Karl stayed in the Attleboro area, raising a son and a daughter. In 1968 she went back to work and developed a successful career as a writer for a technical company, the first woman in that firm to head a department. Nonetheless, she worries that too many women these days are more interested in work than they are in their family, simply because they want to have more things. As a child of the Depression, Marion doesn't remember that being a bad time because "all the neighbors got together to help each other. At Christmas they would go into the basements of their homes to make the gifts. No one has time for families anymore."
Marion's connection to the war years was brought painfully home when her daughter died of cancer at the age of forty-three. She then knew the full force of losing a child, and she thought of all those parents whose sons didn't return from the war. She was middle-aged when her daughter died, and it was a difficult flashback to the time that was at once so exciting and so difficult.
Alison Campbell had a similar midlife challenge. Her husband left her when she was fifty-five. She had not worked since the war. "That experience made me fairly tough. I took unfamiliar steps then, and I could do it again." She was also reading Betty Friedan's seminal book on the place of modern women, The Feminine Mystique. It spoke directly to her own conflicted life. Here she was, a highly educated woman, and yet when she had to go back into the workplace she took secretarial classes because she was so stuck in the strictures of her generation.
She got a secretarial job, but she moved up steadily before retiring as a technical writer and editor for IBM. Now she volunteers at a women's center, where they often refer to her a new generation of women who suddenly find themselves alone. Alison shares her stories of the war years, the husband abroad, the midlife divorce, and the lessons she learned.
After five years as a teacher, Scottie Lingelbach studied for a real estate license and started still another career. "The war made me self-reliant," she says. "I went to Washington not knowing anyone. My parents helped shape me. My father was very stern. He said, 'I'll educate you but then you're on your own.' When he gave me money to pay my way to officer's training, you can bet I had to pay it back."
Scottie stayed in real estate for eleven years, until the downturn in the eighties, but then she grew restless again and decided it was time to return to her origins. She moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where she had begun her adventurous life as a KU freshman in 1940. When she returned, the world had changed, but Scottie's values had not.
One of her daughters is divorced, a fact of modern life Scottie still finds unsettling. "Never did I realize it would happen in my family. Divorce was so uncommon." Not just uncommon, a bit of a scandal for Scottie's generation. That's not all that troubles her.
"What concerns me most about the future is the breakdown of the family. We were willing to make sacrifices so that I could stay home with the children. Now couples both work so they can be more affluent. We would rather delay gratification to ensure that our children had a nice home environment."
Alison Campbell shares similar sentiments. "During the war ... we learned to deal with deprivations -- rationing, being away from our husbands and families. I look at my daughter's generation and their big influence was television -- and that's created a tremendous demand for material goods. My brother and I used to play and build things but my grandchildren don't build things, they only buy them!"
And there are other memories of that time when her life took a sharp turn from the conventions of her upbringing. She has an indelible photograph in her mind "of getting to the shipyard at seven a.m., when it was still dark in the west, and the stars would be out and there would be these giant cranes, which looked like dinosaurs against the sky, and sparks flying from the big machines." It was a daily reminder that her world of Oregon affluence and California graduate school was forever altered.
These days, Scottie keeps busy as a docent at the Spencer Museum on the KU campus and as a student at the Citizen Police Academy three nights a week. She's also started discussing her experiences as a WAVE with her grandchildren and with students at elementary and middle schools in the Lawrence area -- about what America was like during World War II.
And when Scottie comes home at night after a trip to one of those schools, or after a meeting of one of the committees she serves on at KU, or after a round of golf - she now rides nine holes and walks nine - she can, at the age of seventy-five, look back on a life of service and self-reliance, a life of strong values and of an unapologetic love of country.
When she goes into her modest kitchen in Lawrence, Scottie is reminded of that long-ago time when she began her life of service. When she was leaving the WAVES in 1945, the staff at the Joint Chiefs of Staff allowed her to take from the metallic war maps a handful of the tiny magnetic airplanes used to mark battles around the world. Then, they were symbols of terrible battles in distant places, of the powerful struggle to preserve freedom. Now, they keep in place on her refrigerator Scottie's reminders of what's coming up next in her long, rich life.
Copyright © 1998 by Tom Brokaw. All rights reserved.
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