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‘The Greatest Generation’

Honoring the ‘December 7’ men

By John Burger

George Blake was a 19-year-old from Brooklyn who found himself in the “Pacific paradise” of Hawaii in 1941. It wasn’t a paradise for long.

Martin Onieal was attending a ballgame in New York on the morning of Dec. 7 when he heard the announcement that all military personnel were to report to duty. He later served in the Allied invasion of Italy, where he lost a leg in combat.

They are just two of the hundreds of thousands of men who served their country during the Second World War, part of what television journalist Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.”

The Connecticut Knights of Columbus raised funds to purchase a van for disabled veterans at the local VA Medical Center in West Haven.

As America approaches the 70th anniversary in 2011 of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there are fewer and fewer vets around to recount their experiences.
 
Keeping alive the memory of that “day which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, was one reason George Blake got involved in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.
 
He recalled that in the waning months of 1941, the 44,000 Army troops guarding America’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor were put on high alert, eventually being issued war supplies such as steel helmets and gas masks. In the middle of an early Sunday morning basketball game Dec. 7, Blake and his Army buddies heard a “really loud noise. It sounded like an airplane landing on a corrugated steel roof,” he recounted.

It was machine-gun fire from enemy aircraft. Blake saw smoke from the direction of the harbor.

Soldiers manned their gun posts, and Blake was sent to get more ammunition. He had a World War I-vintage Springfield rifle, which he shot toward a couple of airplanes, missing them. Later, he manned an infantry mount, which was not built as an anti-aircraft gun, so he fired as high as he could at passing aircraft but didn’t hit any. “But it made me feel better,” he said.

He saw his share of death and destruction, coming upon a group of soldiers that had just been killed as a damaged Japanese plane crashed into them.

Today, as a district director of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Blake feels he’s part of a “family” with a common experience that binds them together. “You find some people went through a lot worse than you,” he said, such as a vet who was under siege for five months on Corregidor in the Philippines and survived the Bataan Death March.

Said Blake, “I was lucky.”

Martin Onieal wasn’t so lucky, though today he acts like the luckiest man in the world. At 94, he’s upbeat and eager to discuss his experiences. He’s part of a group of amputee vets, most from World War II, who come together for regular activities at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Haven, Conn. Thanks to a Knights of Columbus donation of a van that’s specially-equipped for amputees, the group enjoys frequent day trips in the New Haven area.

Onieal wanted to join the Navy but the Army drafted him after Pearl Harbor was hit. He remembers hearing about the attack while attending a game in New York.
 
“It was really startling when we heard it,” he said.

He served in the Army Air Corps in Africa and learned to fly. He took part in the invasion of Italy, where he encountered “real fighting” for the first time. That’s where he lost a leg.

In spite of what they went through, both Blake and Onieal downplay the term “the greatest generation.”

“We weathered the great Depression and we got a lot of credit for getting through tough times, but I don’t know if we were any better than any other generation,” said Blake, whose father also struggled as an immigrant bricklayer from England.

Said Onieal, “We were not the greatest generation. You can’t label any particular generation ‘the greatest.’ It’s too heavy an adjective. They accomplished what they wanted to, and when you look at the final score, it’s not bad.”

John Burger is news editor of the National Catholic Register.

(Editor’s Note: The World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., pictured on the Fathers for Good homepage, was constructed with a major donation from the Knights of Columbus.)