WWII’s last legion: Rise of the boomers

Participants fill the SeaBreeze sports pool for an exercise class in 2018. With the values instilled by their parents, many residents led successful careers before retiring to The Villages.

Victory over Japan Day, 75 years ago today, when Japan’s formal surrender took place aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, meant our soldiers were coming home.

It meant our economy was booming, and so was a new era of population explosion.

World War II had a profound effect on the American birthrate, which had fallen to just 18 births per 1,000 people. World War II veterans eager to settle into family life with their sweethearts — buoyed by GI Bill benefits and access to good jobs  — added 4.24 million new babies every year between 1946 and 1964 alone.

Today, few of those who fought in the great conflict remain to tell the tale. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today.

It is a last legion that stands as a witness to history in veteran strongholds such as The Villages, home to about 200.

But their legacy remains firmly in the hands of the 73 million baby boomers who, even as they enter retirement, continue to exert a strong pull on American culture at large.

The war revolutionized the home front — weaving new threads in prosperity, technology and changing social norms into the fabric of America.

It rocket-fueled a wave of homeownership, the advent of women in the workplace and the civil rights movement.

It gave us the suburbs, a flood of new cars, automations such as washing machines, the ability to travel globally and a whole new world accessed by the wondrous new gateway of color television.

The 1944 GI Bill that guaranteed veterans educational, homeownership and unemployment benefits absolutely transformed American life, said Tyler Bamford, Ph.D., the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

A New Generation Defines Middle Class

From 1940 to 1950, the homeownership rate grew by 11% to 55%, according to U.S. Census data.

“When you’re talking about the postwar period, the GI Bill is the largest piece of American social engineering,” he said. “It elevated an entire generation of young men and women into the middle class. It allowed an entire generation to go to college, to start a business or buy a home. It also created an instant generation of consumers.”

Almost half of America’s World War II veterans took advantage of education benefits through college or vocational training programs, including Dick Loges, 94, of Freedom Pointe.

Loges earned a degree in history with a minor in Spanish and government from the University of Dayton in Ohio and Indiana University at Bloomington.

After 26 years as a petrochemical salesman, he founded a business as a manufacturer’s representative and then retired.

His late wife, Phyllis, worked as a dental assistant before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

“We were a middle-class family,” he said.

It was a fitting reward for the “Mud Marine” who six months prior to VJ Day, survived the carnage at Iwo Jima.

On Feb. 19, his division landed under heavy fire at the Red and Green beaches at the foot of Mount Suribachi, the site of the famed American flag raising.

“We did whatever needed to be done,” Loges recalled. “The thing I remember most, we picked up bodies. That sort of snapped you back to reality. At the time, you think you’re immortal. You’re sort of numb at the point because of all the devastation and death. You hope for a quick conclusion that didn’t really come.”

On the fourth day of fighting, at the foot of Suribachi, Loges saw the famed American flag unfurled and flowing in the wind.

“We looked up and saw the flag and thought, ‘This is over,’ but it wasn’t,” he said

Loges marched on orders to the battlefront and by nightfall realized something went wrong.

“We ended up behind the Japanese front,” Loges said. “I had a good friend, Bill Long, who I had been with since basic training at Camp Lejeune. That’s the night we lost Bill from gunfire.”

It’s also the night Loges was blown from a foxhole by mortar fire, a sacrifice for which he earned a Purple Heart.

“I was knocked out with a severe concussion. I got air-evaced off Iwo Jima and spent a week at Guam. I was put on the hospital ship and sent back to the United States. It was the best cruise ship I was ever on.”

New Americana Rises In Post-War Society

Fears about a postwar recession quickly evaporated.

“There was a lot of energy after World War II, and America emerged as the No. 1 powerhouse in the world,” Loges said. “Our lifestyles were changing. Automation was coming in with labor-saving devices.”

U.S. gross domestic product, the sum of all goods and services produced within the country, grew by 23% to $320 billion from 1947 to 1950, according to federal data. It grew by 68% to $437 billion from 1947 to 1955.

Veterans played critical roles at every level of the socioeconomic structure, said David Boaz, executive vice president at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington.

“In the 75 years since World War II, the world has become an amazing place because of them, and we don’t even think about it,” he said. “We have cars, TVs, computers, mobile phones. But many of the veterans may not have had cars or TV before the war.”

It was an exhilarating end to 16 years of lost economic growth.

“We took the economy out of the war footing, lifted price controls and decentralized the economy,’ Boaz said. “Private investment soared after the war; people married, and then came the baby boom years.”

Nothing in history compares with the transition from wartime to peacetime. Washing machines, dishwashers and air conditioning drastically changed the labor needs of domestic life.

“It’s really fascinating how WWII shaped our postwar lives,” Bamford said. “Just look at the infrastructure spending, this is part of the consumer culture. The (interstate) highways were originally built to move men and machines around quickly, to connect defense installations. The U.S. government subsidized the growth of suburban living because Americans wanted to live this way, and it was a step up in their quality of life.”

The advent of the jet engine during World War II also transformed Americans into domestic and international travelers, Bamford added.

“Before World War II, travel to Europe was reserved mostly for upper-class, affluent families,” he said. “Technology pioneered not only jet engines, but also radar and pressurized cabins. A lot of GIs came home with memories of overseas, especially in Europe. They saw a lot of the world and caught the travel bug.”

Postwar prosperity and the rise in advanced education fueled an intensity level of civic participation, igniting a new movement to address social injustice.

Women Redefine Roles In American Society

American women played important roles during World War II, both at home and in uniform. Not only did they give their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers to the war effort, they gave their time, energy and even their lives.

When the war began, quickie marriages became the norm as teenagers married their sweethearts before they were shipped overseas. As the mostly male forces fought abroad, women on the home front worked in defense plants and volunteered for war-related organizations.

Nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform, both at home and abroad, including Eleanor Koepsel, 96, a yeoman 1st class who served with a top-secret clearance in the U.S. Navy Reserves WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in Washington, D.C.

A star baseball player known for hitting home runs, Koepsel enlisted in the Navy Reserves at age 20 while studying graphics at the University of Wisconsin.

Raised on a farm in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, she followed two older sisters, Evelyn and Lorraine, and three brothers into military service.

One of her most exhilarating experiences occurred in the fall of 1944 while at boot camp at Hunter College in New York City.

To help finance the war, the Department of Defense promoted U.S. Treasury bonds as “war bonds” or “war loans” and urged all Americans to invest. In support of that effort, the department sponsored fundraising parades throughout the country.

Koepsel and the WAVES at Hunter College joined Marines, soldiers, sailors and Women’s Army Corps volunteers during a parade on the city’s Sixth Avenue.

“There were thousands of us,” she recalled. “It was the only time we got out of boot camp; to march in the parade.”

Following training, Koepsel quickly moved up in rank.

“I was in for about six to eight months and the war was coming to an end,” she said. “So, I reenlisted to help clean up the mess in Washington.”

The job consisted mostly of stenography and letter composition, Koepsel said. But the work required the utmost in secrecy because the bureau sited top-secret Navy bases.

“The toughest job was that we weren’t able to talk about our jobs because it was top secret,” she said.

With the war winding down, Koepsel took on additional responsibilities helping returning Marines, soldiers and sailors with their discharges.

“It was exciting to be in Washington, especially when the fighting men came back from service,” she said. “Some of them had been imprisoned; some of them had been imprisoned for three years. I felt so sorry for them.”

Koepsel also greeted dignitaries and celebrities who visited Washington, work that gave her an opportunity to hear Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower speak at Arlington National Cemetery.

“It was quite interesting work,” she said, of her life before marrying her husband, Edward, an Army veteran who inspected commercial boilers for Traveler’s Insurance.

Like most Americans of their generation, theirs was a long-term marriage of 50 years in which “we were able to take care of ourselves quite well.”

The 1940’s were a watershed for women who wanted to work outside the home. Never before had the boundaries between home front and front lines been so blurred.

By 1948, nearly a third of America’s workforce — 29% — was women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a number that has swelled to 47% today.

They did more than clerical work: They also drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as lab technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, test-flew newly repaired planes and even trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners by acting as flying targets.

At the war’s end, even though a majority of women surveyed reported they wanted to keep their jobs, many were forced out by men returning home and the downturn in demand for war materials.

But mothers told their daughters what they had done during the war, and how their horizons had been limited afterward. The women of the baby boom drove the emergence of feminist groups in the 1960s and 1970s that are still active today in the campaign for gender equality.

The reins are now passing to their granddaughters, as Millennials have now surpassed baby boomers as the nation’s largest living adult generation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

How the values of a peacetime generation will shift from those of their wartime predecessors remains to be seen: The boomer generation that peaked at 79 million in 1999 will dwindle to 16 million by mid-century.

“It’s so amazing, all that we take for granted,” Boaz said. “Certainly, for the grandchildren of the people who live in The Villages, they think it’s old. Now, with smartphones, you have the knowledge of history of the world in your pocket. To me, that’s amazing.”

Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.