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The Greatest Generation can be summed up in one word

June 10, 2014 | 03:43 PM
Between East Troy to the northwest and Burlington to the southeast is a small, dusty crossroads called Honey Creek. A place that was always referred to as “The Valley” by those who were born there.

On two neighboring farms the Horvaths and Ammons raised their children. Five boys in the first and in the second, six boys and two girls. My father was an Ammon, born Gordon Henry, on Dec. 26, 1912.

These families from The Valley were joined in marriage when my father’s sister, Ruth, married Robert Horvath. Robert’s brother, Ollie, was one of my father’s closest friends. I grew up as a child of both clans, spending as many days in my younger years with the one as with the other. In the passing of time, my father’s siblings were no more or less familiar to me than Ollie’s. So, I came to think of them all as my ‘relatives’ and called them aunt and uncle, as the case might be. Uncle Bob or Aunt Ruth, and so on.

My father was not a young man when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was 29 and had only just gotten married to my mother the previous March. They had set up housekeeping in Walworth, where my father owned and operated a Texaco gas station/repair business on Highway 14. The building he worked in still stands and is little changed. It can be seen today on the east side of this road on your way north out of town.

Edward Horvath joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was a fighter pilot, flying a P-40 of Flying Tiger fame. His brother Bill was a teenager and became a paratrooper with the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne. My father enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Signal Corps.

Uncle Bill was part of the assault forces that parachuted behind the beaches at Normandy, the night before D-Day. My father participated in three invasions. In North Africa, at Casablanca, as part of Operation Torch, in November of 1942; with the joint British-American operation called Husky in Sicily during the summer of 1943; and, finally, Italy later in that same year.

Capt. Edward Horvath was killed in the Pacific, in 1943. My father survived to take part in the Liberation of Rome in 1944. Uncle Bill fought his way across Europe and was at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. This was where American Gen. McCauliff issued his famous reply to the Germans who were demanding his surrender: “Nuts!”

My father came home in the fall of 1945. We lived in Chicago just long enough for my father to set aside enough money to once again buy into his own business. Our family moved to Williams Bay on April 14, 1947. The same day Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped out between those two white lines at Ebbets Field, and broke the ‘color line’ in professional baseball. Brooklyn beat the Boston Braves, 5-3.

Uncle Bill attended the University of Wisconsin and earned his law degree in 1951. He volunteered to fight in Korea. The Air Force made a pilot out of him and he spent the next two years flying A-26 bombers. He mustered out of the service in 1955 as a lieutenant colonel, with a Purple Heart.

People like these are what we used to proudly refer to as ‘Citizen Soldiers’. This was a concept based on the ancient Roman legend of Cincinnatus –pronounced with a hard ‘k’. Cincinnatus was a brave General, serving in many campaigns to defend the Republic.

He was admired by both his soldiers and the people at large.

His renown grew from the fact that as soon as the fighting was over, Cincinnatus would lay down his armor, resign his command and return home. He had no further claims or ambitions beyond going back to his farm and tilling the soil. This was the theme that became the story line in a recent film entitled “The Gladiator”.

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Today, we have abandoned the tradition of the citizen doing his duty on behalf of the country. Instead, we have adopted an idea we once rejected and considered abhorrent: the formation of a professional army of highly paid soldiers. In essence, an organization patterned after the militarists typified by the Prussian officer class and those practicing ‘Bushido’, or the way of the warrior.

Having done away with universal conscription–the draft–after the end of the Vietnam War, our nation presently relies on ‘volunteers’ to fill the ranks of our armed forces. And since fewer and fewer choose this way of life, the United States has had little alternative but to “bribe” young men and women to put on the uniform and take their place in the line. Those that have, have done so with honor and great sacrifice.

They are the few who carry the burden, a duty that allows so many others to enjoy the opportunities and benefits they safeguard.

I enlisted in the Navy and served from 1961 to 1965, including two more years in the inactive reserve. In upholding my obligation as a citizen, I honored my family’s history and became part of a tradition that stretched back to the founding of our nation. I am proud to know that I am a bridge between the past and the future; joined in spirit with those that came before me and all those yet to come.

At a school reunion several years ago, I overheard this conversation: “So, were you drafted during the Vietnam War?” The answer? “No, I didn’t have to go...”

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Neither did I.

The alum in question may not have made any sacrifice, but he, like many others, could always be found pushing, grasping, shoving, elbowing and jostling his way to the front of the line when his country’s blessings were to be redeemed. All of the bobbing and weaving, slipping and sliding, dipping and diving was readily put in abeyance, so he could be certain to get all there was to be gotten.

The Greatest Generation can be summed up in just one word: Courage.

Their children inherited this legacy and went on to make a generation of their own, also summed up in a single word: Fun. The reader may decide which is the more enviable. The one that triumphed through perseverance and selfless determination, or the other, that grew to become the most profligate group that ever lived.

Before you reach any final conclusion, listen to Ken Burns: “Instead of the shared sacrifices World War II demanded that created community and made us spiritually richer, we’re so lacking today. We aren’t asked to give up anything. We’re narcissistic free agents. Surfing the Internet alone. Watching TV alone. Driving alone. There’s too much Pluribus and not enough Unum.”

Editor’s note: Gordon Ammon, a longtime lakes area resident, has written a book entitled “Snapshots: The Cold War and Eisenhower Years in Williams Bay 1947-1961.” The Regional News is publishing excerpts. “Snapshots” is available for $25 by contacting Ammon at gordonammon@yahoo.com. A DVD is included. The book is reproduced on an order-by-order basis.

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