The Greatest Generation, that milestone generation which saved the world in the Second World War, is rapidly dwindling right before our eyes. The death of George H.W. Bush at age 92, the youngest Navy pilot in the war, caused to serve notice that their days are truly numbered.
More than 16 million Americans served during World War II. Five years ago, there were more than a million surviving veterans. Right now there are a little less than 400,000. Next year the number will drop by another 100,000. Within five years, there’ll be about 60,000 veterans left.
This is not to say that these World War II veterans will completely disappear anytime soon. They won’t.
Frank Buckles, the last surviving American World War I veteran, died in 2011 at age 110. So World War II veterans will certainly be with us for the next few decades.
More than 550,000 Jews served in the U.S. military during the Second World War. For an American Jewish population at the time of just over 4,770,000, this represents a very high percentage, with probably 90 percent of Jewish adult males of military age serving during the war.
It’s nearly impossible to determine the number of surviving Jewish World War II veterans, but the best estimates hover around several thousand. And even that number diminishes on a weekly basis.
Those youngest soldiers who entered the war in 1944-45 are now 91 to 92 years old, with the largest age group dying off. Luckily, many of those who are still with us or recently passed had their stories documented, either formally or by their families. The importance of these testaments cannot be underestimated. Every veteran of the war has or had a compelling story to tell.
Such as Nathan Gordon.
A month after Navy Pilot George Bush passed away, so, too, did Nathan Gordon. But before he did, he told the story of his young life, and especially his life during the war.
Nate, as he was called, grew up in working class Trenton, New Jersey. Like many or even most Jews of his era, his parents fled Eastern Europe and never looked back. Nate was American born and bred, and struggled through the Depression and early war years, helping out with his father’s roofing business while still managing to finish high school.
Like every American teenage boy, Nate reported for military duty when he turned 18, in December 1944. By then, the war had entered its most lethal phase with American soldiers being killed at a rate of 1,000 per day.
At the same time that Nate was being inducted into the Army came word that his soldier brother was last seen defending a machine-gun pill box against the Germans and was listed as missing-in-action. It was one of the few times Nate saw his father cry since this meant his brother was either killed and his body unrecoverable (i.e., blown to bits) or captured. To a Jewish family in World War II, captured meant killed since it was assumed the Germans automatically executed captured American Jewish GIs.
Sometimes they did, sometimes not. It all depended on the German unit. The SS always killed captured Jewish GIs, the German Army not so much. Or sometimes their German captors either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were Jewish.
As turned out, his brother had been captured, spent time in a German POW camp unharmed, and was eventually liberated by U.S. troops close to VE Day (Victory in Europe).
By that time, Nate had shifted from boot camp at Fort Dix, N.J., to more training at (his namesake) Fort Gordon in Georgia. He scored high enough on the Army Aptitude Test and was given a choice of the Signal Corps and Medical Corps. He chose the latter. Then it was off to the Pacific for the ongoing war with Japan.
He served as a surgical technician on an Army hospital ship in the just liberated Philippines, helping the emaciated, tormented survivors of the Bataan Death March who had endured well over three years in Japanese captivity. Many of these men barely made it out alive to his ship, and some never made it home. But Nate did what he could for them, and when the war finally ended, he continued in his medical capacity on the ship helping to heal the wounded and broken soldiers.
He had seen and experienced enough—too much, in fact—and by a combination of luck and the grace of God, finally made it home. And he was only 19.
Like most of his generation, Nate had neither the time nor the desire to dwell on the war. He had to get busy with his life. So it was on to college at Yeshiva University in New York, then law school, then marriage, then kids, then …
His life was a kaleidoscope of the American experience, of the Greatest Generation that he personified.
Nate eventually became a judge—a renowned immigration judge in both in New Jersey and Los Angeles, but he never wore his status on his sleeve. To him it was a job, like any other, and when he left work for the day, he was just Nate from Jersey, a blue-collar judge who in his youth did his duty and served his country on the other side of the globe in an epic war that changed our world for the better.
He was one of more than half a million American Jewish soldiers of the Greatest Generation. The Generation that will soon pass from our lives, but will forever be enshrined in the collective memory of the American nation for whom they sacrificed long ago.
Tom Mountain is vice chair of the Massachusetts Republican Jewish Committee.