Greatest Generation(s): Ordinary Young People, Remarkable Bravery

My grandfather, Gene Hickok, was recently asked to give a speech on World War II to a public middle school. He received a standing ovation from the students, aged 11 to 13. I would like to share his words with you…

Good morning, students, teachers and guests. It is good to be with you this morning. Of course, at my advanced age it is good to be anywhere this morning.

I have been asked to tell about my World War II veteran’s experiences, beliefs and the airplane fighter group to which I was attached. WWII must seem like ancient history to many middle school students because it happened over 60 years ago.

WWII began when Japan bombed the U.S. Naval fleet at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor and when Germany declared war on America. Japan wanted to extend control over all of China and SE Asia while Germany wanted to control England, all of Europe and Russia, after taking over Poland, Belgium, France and Holland. Both Japan and Germany knew that America would object to such control over free countries, and therefore they wanted to defeat America and keep America from doing anything to help other free countries.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and war with Germany was declared on America, I enlisted in the Army Air Corps (the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force after WWII). Your athletic director’s dad (my best friend) also enlisted with me. Don and I were sent to Santa Ana, CA for pre-flight physical exams. Don did not pass the eye pencil test and had to transfer to the Air Corps Communication Division. I went on to pilot training, finally winning my pilot wings at Williams Field in Arizona.

After training in the P-38 “Lightning” fighter, I joined the 474th Fighter Group which was stationed in southern England. I was with this group flying out of airfields in England, France, Belgium and Germany throughout the war with Germany. (The wolf logos on my yellow windbreaker were designed by Walt Disney, specifically for my squadron.)

The United States saw over 16 million of our best men and women involved in WWII. Some have called these fighters for America “the Greatest Generation.” Today, we WWII veterans are becoming few in number, with an estimate of over 1,000 WWII vets now dying each day.

The 474th Fighter Group, the organization I was in, fought hard. We flew our first combat missions on April 25, 1944. Our last mission was on May 8, 1945, so we fought just over one year before Germany surrendered.

We had a great team of pilots and ground crew. The pilot group averaged about 20 years of age. Our P-38 fighter planes were tops before the jets came in after the war. The Lockheed P-38 had twin engines. Out of approximately 100 combat missions, I came back to base 13 times with one engine out. We pilots appreciated having two engines!

The P-38 fighter plane had four 50-caliber machine guns, one 20 mm cannon in the nose and two bomb shackles under the wings to carry two 500-lb. or two 1,000-lb. bombs. We were well equipped for air-to-air combat and ground support work. We flew high altitude escort of bombers. We flew fighter sweeps in air-to-ground support work.

By D-Day on June 6, 1944, when the Allied troops crossed the channel from England to France, we were an experienced group of three squadrons. We participated in every major action from the D-Day invasion of France to the end of the war. We maintained air superiority and cleared the area in front of our troops. Finally, in May 1945, the overwhelming Allied offensive closed the gaps and brought American, British, French and Russian troops together. The war in Europe was over.

The war was still on with Japan, but I was not involved with that war. I was sent back to the U.S. to train in jets before the war with Japan ended.

The 474th compiled a record of flying 822 combat missions. A total of 113 enemy aircraft were destroyed in the air, some 90 on the ground, while 239 were damaged. Over 10,000 pieces of enemy equipment such as tanks, trucks, armored vehicles, locomotives and rail cars were destroyed or damaged.

The heroic and gallant action of all personnel in the group was shown by the many decorations for valor. Six were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (second highest U.S. award), 18 earned Silver Stars, 106 were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, 88 received Bronze Star Medals. 1,853 Air Medals were earned. Eight earned the French Croix de Guerre. 15 earned the Soldiers’ Medal. In addition, the Group was awarded the United States’ Distinguished Unit Citation for action, as well as receiving the Belgian Fourragere.

Over 1,400 personnel, both officers and enlisted men, served in the 474th with many giving their lives for their country. We knew that Hitler’s German plan had to be stopped, so we fought hard against it and won. Our young people had the willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom and justice. These actions reflected their love and respect for life and liberty as we know it. America has never asked for any land from the countries we have defeated, and we do not request any land from other countries (other than land for our overseas cemeteries).

We veterans look with pride on our armed forces today. We still have the resolve by our armed forces to resist the attempt to destroy America by any means possible. Our Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard have never known defeat on the battlefield. Whenever we have lost, it was because we lost at home through government politics and being told to pull out. Our military has never backed down on the field of battle. Today’s news commentators often make out those who are serving in the armed forces today as victims, but they are wrong and this only detracts from the decision these young people made to step forward and protect the country that has given so much to all of us.

America, the nation of which all U.S. citizens are a part, will forever remain the land of the free and the home of the brave as long as we never run out of Americans willing to go into the darkest and most dangerous places on earth to hunt down those who want to fly more airplanes into our buildings and do other things to destroy this country, as our current enemies have openly said they will do. Today’s armed forces are composed of ordinary young people, performing remarkable acts of bravery and selfless acts of devotion to a cause bigger than themselves. Freedom, you see, is not free but must be defended against those who hate our democratic way of life.

We live in a different world today. Memorial and Veterans’ Day are more about a day off for a long weekend, rather than a day to consider the debt we owe to those who made all of this possible. I am glad to note that there is a move today, by many groups, to honor our veterans. Today, a new Greatest Generation is fighting a war that is against those who would destroy the United States of America. Our men and women in uniform are the best our nation has to offer. They have put every one of us above their own self-interest. I am sure that America will continue to exist as a free and democratic country as it is today.

This sums up this veteran’s experiences, feelings and love for his country. Thank you.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director, Development Coordinator, and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s premier free market think tank.