Fourth of July: The Greatest Generation takes its final salutes

My first memories of celebrating the Fourth of July with any sense of history are from 1960. I was only eight at the time, but I had already acquired an unquenchable thirst for the Civil War, nurtured in part by a visit to Gettysburg and a doting third-grade teacher.

We did the day up right. With American flags flying from the handlebars, my brother and I rode our bicycles around the house and into the backyard as if we were Phil Sheridan’s cavalry charging into action.

My grandfather, at my direction, climbed onto the sandbox cover and read Lincoln’s hallowed words to the assembled crowd—all six of us.

What I remember as well from that day is a clipping I cut from the local newspaper about the 15th anniversary of the end of World War II.

To an eight-year-old whose main connection to that conflict was a fading uniform that hung in the back of his father’s closet, it seemed almost as remote as the Civil War.

In the years afterward, my father’s generation observed many more World War II anniversaries. This Independence Day marks the beginning of the 75th round of them.

While the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor was still five months away in the summer of 1941, war clouds were in the air and that Fourth of July 75 years ago marked the last peace that would be known for five long years. Europe was already at war and, truth be told, America was also involved: drafting young men, sending Lend-lease convoys to Great Britain, ratcheting up American industry, and imposing an oil embargo against Japan. Yet, there was also a lingering innocence.

At Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, 60,000 fans planned to watch the New York Yankees take on the Washington Senators as Joe DiMaggio sought to extend his record-breaking hitting streak to forty-six games. When a heavy rain forced a postponement of the much-anticipated holiday doubleheader, DiMaggio had to wait until the next day to belt a two-run homer over the left-field fence his first time up to continue the streak.

If the Yankees had played their rained-out games that Fourth of July, umpires intended to pause play at 5:00 pm to hear President Franklin Roosevelt’s holiday broadcast from his study at Hyde Park. “We know,” Roosevelt told millions of listeners, “that we cannot save freedom in our own midst, in our own land, if all around us—our neighbor nations—have lost their freedom.”

Following the president’s remarks, Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone led everyone within earshot of a radio or public address system in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. “In a world aflame with war and conquest,” the New York Times subsequently reported, “Americans paused to celebrate the Fourth of July in the most solemn mood with which they had observed the day in many years.” The ensuing four years would deeply affect every man, woman, and child in the country.

That Fourth of July of 1941, Robert B. Brunson worked a summer job before starting his junior year at Kansas State University. Short and wiry, Brunson wanted to fly and figured he could improve his chances for pilot training by changing his major from agriculture to engineering. By December 1942, he was in the US Navy, eventually flying F4U Corsairs in an elite night-fighter squadron off the deck of the aircraft carrier Enterprise. Brunson saw action off Kwajalein, Truk, and the Marianas and flew cover for amphibious flying boats assigned to rescue downed flyers.

Robert H. Krear was another recent graduate working hard that summer of 1941. From Emlenton, Pennsylvania, Krear was headed to Penn State to study forestry. All the forestry majors joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps and after the spring semester in 1943 most went into the armed forces.

An accomplished skier, Krear volunteered for the storied 10th Mountain Infantry Division, taking his training high in the Colorado Rockies at Camp Hale. By the time the war was over, Krear had fought with the 10th Mountain Division as it spearheaded the advance of the US Fifth Army into the mountains of northern Italy.

After his return stateside, Brunson flew as a night-fighter instructor and engineering test pilot before going back to Kansas State and getting his engineering degree. His long career in engineering included a stint as senior managing director for Stearns-Roger. Krear earned a doctorate in ecology and animal behavior from the University of Colorado and had a long teaching career. His notable field experiences included Olaus and Mardie Murie’s 1956 Brooks Range Expedition.

Krear swam daily until he was past ninety. Brunson just celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday. Both men remain venerated heroes in the little mountain town of Estes Park, Colorado where the three of us live.

As we begin the march through the anniversaries of their selfless service three-quarters of a century ago, they and all surviving veterans of World War II stand poised to receive one last round of salutes.

The accolades will not signal a final farewell, of course. Our thanks, our gratitude, and our resolve to emulate their example will reverberate long after their presence among us. But this is indeed the beginning of their last hurrah.

In the next few years from this Fourth of July onward, we will honor them on the 75th anniversaries of the names their actions and shared experiences made famous: Pearl Harbor, Midway and Guadalcanal; Kasserine Pass, Anzio and Normandy; Bastogne, Okinawa and more.

This Fourth of July, as I think of the World War II veterans I am proud to call my friends, I don’t know what became of my father’s uniform. Like so many of his comrades, he has received his final salute. But if I could, I would reach into that darkened closet, bring his uniform into the light, and once again hang it the way he did when it was first issued, with unquestioned pride.

I don’t have any plans to climb onto the backyard sandbox and recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but perhaps I should do that, too. 

Historian Walter R. Borneman is the author of “MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific” just published by Little, Brown.

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