ERROL CASTENS: The Greatest Generation’s beginnings



Some might say that the beginning of what Tom Brokaw so famously calls “The Greatest Generation” was the attack on Pearl Harbor, whose 72nd anniversary will be observed tomorrow.

Our sailors and soldiers and Marines were blindsided. Rather than cower, they confronted. Using whatever they could reach, they extinguished, rescued and fought back.

Over nearly four years, that generation would enlist, emerge from boot camp as eight-week wonders and then carry rifles and drive trucks across some of the most seemingly Godforsaken outposts of the world.

Beaches became branded in their minds as places of bullets, bayonets and booby traps rather than cocktails, cabanas and calypso. Mountains massed memories with men and machine guns and mayhem.

And it wasn’t just servicemen who served. Civilian men and women worked long shifts in defense plants to turn out ships, bombs, trucks, guns, jeeps, food, planes, ammunition, tanks and uniforms. Some ran farms with less labor. Bridge parties became bandage-rolling circles.

People drove less, wore clothes longer, grew victory gardens and saved aluminum foil and cooking grease. They postponed educations and romances and careers and families with no guarantee they could ever take up again where they’d left off.

Just as those on the warfronts often ran toward gunfire, those on the homefront often ran toward sobs to comfort newly bereft neighbors.

But it wasn’t Pearl Harbor alone that steeled the Greatest Generation’s collective backbone against Hitler and Hirohito and horror and heartache.

They’d already been tested by the Depression. They were the ones who grew two-cents-per-pound cotton and were glad to be able to pay their land taxes, keeping a home under their feet and over their heads for another year.

They were the ones who felt unusually fortunate to have a $40-a-month job driving a school bus, even if they had to walk several miles each way between home and where the bus was parked each night.

They were the ones who’d made do with threadbare hand-me-downs and cardboard shoe soles and by hunting rabbits with sticks because shotgun shells cost too much. They had sold apples and pencils to people almost as broke as themselves, taken on WPA and CCC jobs to feed younger siblings, made up stories to entertain each other and planned a million things they’d do once their ship came in.

But when their ship came in, it was a troop transport, destroyer escort or merchant marine cargo hauler. They boarded anyway, because having lived through most of the Depression, they already knew life wasn’t easy or fair and that survival sometimes required both great effort and the Lord’s intervention.

That’s where they got their mettle.

And that’s why they won the war.

Contact Daily Journal reporter Errol Castens at (662) 816-1282 or


    Would you support programs like the WPA and CCC today?