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The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation

The USS Pennsylvania underway in 1943

The USS Pennsylvania underway in 1943

When I first arrived at Pearl Harbor, there were just a handful of American battleships in the Pacific.  But by the end, they were everywhere.” – Henry Huber, Navy Corpsman Second Class, 22nd Marine Regiment.

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I'd be remiss - no, we all would - if we didn't pause to pay homage to those who've served in the Armed Forces on Veterans Day.  Every day should be "their day", solely for their great sacrifices.  But if none others, at least this day.

And without taking away from the contributions and selfless sacrifice made by servicemen and women from every era of American history, recent, long-past and those currently serving, there's one group that stands out as a bit unique.  Their fight was different than all the conflict our nation had seen up until that point, and different from everything we've seen since.  World War II Veterans changed The United States of America. 

They bound the nation together, pulled it out of poverty and created a world power.  But all that came at great expense while facing superior forces.  When survivors  returned home, they brought with them a tenacity that, arguably, hadn't graced US Soil since the Revolution.  This is a story about soldiers, the nation that supported them, and the work ethic that was borne of unimaginable struggle and stoic victory. 

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There are few who’ll argue the fact that for the first half of WWII, the Axis powers technologically outpaced Allied forces.  German Panzer tanks, machine guns and submarines were superior to their American and British counterparts.  Though later obsolete, the Japanese Zero fighter plane was a force to be reckoned with early on.

It wasn’t until later in the war that the Axis powers would feel the sting of being out-produced, outmanned and out-supplied by enemies with vastly greater resources. 

The Second World War is generally said to have begun on September 1st, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.  By then, the United States still hadn’t realized its full economic and industrial potential, in part because it was still wallowing in the Great Depression.  Our comparatively young nation stayed out of the growing conflict until December 7th, 1941.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor revolutionized American mindsets and manufacturing infrastructure.  By 1946, more than half of all manufacturing production in the world took place in the United States.  Through New York Harbor passed 63 million tons of supplies and 3.3 Million men over the course of the war.  A ship left New York every 15 minutes at the height of the war.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the bulk of all US industrial capacity was aimed at the war effort.  Manufacturers ceased production of their normal lines and retrofitted to build war goods. 

Companies like General Electric began producing jet engines and superchargers.  Burnham built hand grenades, pontoon bridges and landing vessels instead of boilers.  International Harvester was one of several companies that constructed the venerable m1 Garand.  And despite the fact that Henry Ford was a pacifist, Ford Motor Company built an airplane assembly line more than a mile long, churning out B-24 Liberator bombers at a rate of one per hour.

Nationwide, scrap metal drives produced iron for bombs and copper for bullets.  Some patriotic citizens went as far as cutting the cast iron radiators out of their own homes.  Women and elderly grew produce in Victory Gardens.

Writing history

Henry Huber, 91, of Columbia, PA, served in the Navy fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.  He was a Corpsman Second Class attached to the 22nd Marine Regiment, and deployed in 1943.  After returning home in 1946, he was recalled in 1950 for the Korean War.  In addition to his 32 years in the military - active duty and reserve – Huber was also a pipefitter for 40 years.  He retired from UA Local 520 in 1988.

Henry Huber, at home, in 2015

Henry Huber, at home, in 2015

During his time in the Pacific, Huber witnessed firsthand the evolution of American manufacturing and the undeniable advantage it provided.

“The transport ship that took us from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor in early 1943 was escorted by several Destroyers, in fear of submarine attack,” said Huber.  “But from Pearl Harbor out to the Pacific Islands, we didn’t get an escort.  We were told that these smaller transport vessels were faster than the Japanese subs.  The fact of the matter was, there weren’t enough combat vessels to go around.  But that would change.”

“By the time the Japanese surrendered two years later, there were American battleships everywhere,” he exclaimed.  “But not just battleships.  As we were staging to invade Okinawa, there were more than 1,000 ships anchored with us, 26 of which were aircraft carriers.” 

Despite undeniable defeat, it took the deployment of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to convince Japan’s leaders to surrender.  The alternative would have been a direct ground assault of mainland Japan. 

“If not for the use of the A-bombs, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.  “We were told that if we invaded the Japanese mainland, we’d take 90 percent casualties.”  The bombs ,and the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses that carried them, were a marvel of American engineering and craftsmanship. 

A few memories

“I was part of the invasion of Guam,” said Huber.  “After we took the Island, I learned that my brother, David, was there, too.  He was Army, 77th Infantry Division.  I found him in a Battalion Aid tent, wrapped in battle dressing.  He’d been shot in the face by a sniper and somehow survived.”  Once he’d recovered, David rejoined the 77th again, only to be killed by a land mine several months later on Leyte, in the Philippines. 

Toward the end of the war – as the Marines island-hopped closer to Japan - it was clear that Allied forces had better equipment and supplies.  The Japanese supply chain was severed.  Even if they could have resupplied, Japan was depleted by that time.  Most of their manufacturing base was destroyed during the American fire-bombing that began in late 1944. 

“The Japanese didn’t believe in surrender.  Absolutely wouldn’t do it,” said Huber.  “You knew they were out of ammo when they fixed bayonets and ran at the line.  We never ran out of ammunition and we always had food.”  Despite being literally half the globe away from home, Americans in the Pacific typically had a dependable supply chain.

A constant stream of new American equipment and troops was a much needed lifeline for Allied forces in the Pacific.  It took everything they had to counter the well-entrenched Japanese in the tropics. 

“The Japanese would lash coconut logs to the sides and tops of their bunkers,” he said.  “Because the logs were soft and spongy, some bombs would literally bounce off without detonating.  The Navy – with their total air superiority - would bomb away at a hill for hours to soften it up.  When we’d advance on the ground, we’d still encounter massive resistance.”

After Japan’s surrender, Huber was sent to Tientsin, China, during occupation of the port city.  As a corpsman (medic), he helped treat and release prisoners from Japanese concentration camps. 

To the trade

After WWII, Huber apprenticed at his father-in-law’s plumbing firm.  That was the beginning of a long career as a pipefitter. 

“I’ve joined just about every type of pipe you can think of,” said Huber.  “Lead, iron, stainless, terracotta, copper and even glass.  They started using poly pipe a year or two before I retired.  I’ve fitted 102-inch concrete pipe at nuclear cooling towers.”

At the height of his career, Huber worked at numerous nuclear power plants up and down the East Coast, spending as much as seven years on a single project.  “The steel pipe around a nuclear reactor has a three-inch wall,” he explained.  “Every joint is TIG welded.”

There are few living Americans who’ve witnessed firsthand as much progress in American industry as Huber.  Beginning when he joined the Navy at 17 years old, if not earlier, he’s been a contributing factor to the strength of this great nation.

When hearing about Americans like Huber, and the struggle they’ve seen in their time, there’s little wonder his generation is referred to as “The Greatest Generation.”  Their collective efforts - whether aboard a ship, on the battlefield, in a factory or tending a Victory Garden - stand in stark contrast with the division and disrespect that’s tearing our nation limb from limb today. 

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Zero Your Turrets – T.O.

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