He was born during the war, and is thus too young by 15 years or so to claim membership in The Greatest Generation. But retired Navy Capt. David Schue knows its members — and the bedrock principles that allowed them to meet and conquer perhaps the greatest challenge that has ever faced mankind — better than the veterans know themselves. Schue knows that the many World War II veterans he has met as executive director of the USS North Carolina comprise “a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor,” in the words of newsman Tom Brokaw, who has done so much to preserve their legacy as “participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order.”
As important as it was, the war was only one of three events that shaped The Greatest Generation, Schue says. The Depression shares near-equal billing for its role in molding the mindset of those who would go to war, as does the nation-building that the veterans undertook with enthusiasm when they returned from the fight.
“For the kids in high school in 1939, ’40 and ’41, things weren’t really great,” Schue says of the first. “When they were growing up, many of them didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. They were really lucky to be able to graduate from high school, and had almost no chance of going to college. They came and enlisted in the military, and they were given clothes, given room and board and three real meals a day. It was a major change. Yes, it was hard. But except for the fact that you could be killed, many of them were better off than when they were growing up. They had all lived with sacrifice; they all knew what sacrifice is. And they continued to make sacrifices during the war,” Schue says.
Reflection after the war was over — and, in no small part, the G.I. Bill — enabled the returning warriors to take what they had accomplished in combat and turn it into a prosperous peace the likes of which the world had never seen. “I think when they came back and the war was over, they looked back on the first 30 years of their life realizing how hard they had had it,” Schue says. “They were coming back now to have kids, and they didn’t want their kids to go through the same things that they did. So they continued to work harder than they probably should have, to make things go.”
More than anything, Schue says, they had “the drive and the focus to make the world better because they had seen it at its worst. They were going to try to make sure the worst didn’t happen again.”
Between the Depression and the economic resurrection, of course, there was the central accomplishment by which The Greatest Generation earned its place in history.
Wilmington was “The Defense Capital of the State,” local historian Wilbur Jones notes in the preface to his 2005 book “The Journey Continues,” and “nearly everyone in the country had a job directly or indirectly involving them in the war effort,” the late Hugh Morton wrote in its foreword. “The able-bodied who were young enough were in the military, and everyone else was in war-related industries or volunteer work.”
That certainly is an apt description of Wrightsville Beach in general, and of these members of The Greatest Generation whose stories we are privileged to share in these pages.
All Quiet on the Home Front
By Jules Norwood
Members of the World War II generation tend to keep their thoughts to themselves when it comes to their contributions to the war effort. For most, participation wasn’t a matter of seeking glory or wanting to be a hero; it was simply something that had to be done.
My own grandfather kept his recollections of the war to himself. His sons talk about how he remained tight-lipped even when they asked him about his medals and a box of old pictures they had found.
“They were involved in so much that’s hard to talk about,” my uncle said during our recent holiday gathering.
Hugh Perry Sr. agrees. He scoffed before agreeing to an interview about the Greatest Generation. “We’re not a great generation, we just did what we were supposed to do,” he said.
Hugh’s son, Hayes Perry, said that his father never said much about the war.
“It’s hard to sit back and recall or talk about seeing your best friend blown in half right in front of your very eyes,” Perry Sr. said.
Soldiers lost friends; it was a fact of life during the war. They knew in the morning that some of them wouldn’t be there that night.
In Italy, Perry had an experience that would still bring tears to his eyes decades later. His commanding officer and several members of his unit were sitting around a table in a farmhouse. Perry had just been sent out to get something when a mortar shell hit right in the middle of the table, causing terrible injuries and costing the commanding officer his leg.
“He looked down and saw that thing hanging there, and he reached and got his knife and finished cutting it off,” Perry said. “He hollered for medics to bring him some powder to put on it and bandage it. And he scooted around on his butt helping the other wounded in that room until the medics got there to take care of them. That takes guts, when you’ve just lost your leg — to tie it up yourself and try to help others.”
For him to consider such actions “doing what we were supposed to do” speaks volumes about the willfulness, courage and compassion of the country’s fighting men.
They came from all over the country. Perry said he served with a lumberjack from Washington and a sheepherder from Montana. They had nothing to lose.
“It was a bunch of 18- to 23-year-olds that didn’t have a … thing except for our own lives — didn’t have any responsibilities, nobody to take care of — so what the …, let’s go kill the other sumbitches,” he says. “It was the I-don’t-give-a-damn generation.”
When he enlisted, Perry volunteered for a parachute regiment, the 82nd Airborne. They were paid an extra $50 a month to jump out of airplanes — big money in 1942.
He enlisted six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, halfway through his fourth year at Carolina. He had grown up on a farm in Louisburg and witnessed the desperation wrought by the Depression, though he didn’t fully grasp it until later.
“I didn’t know I was poor. I had as much as I’d ever had,” he said. “We had plenty to eat because we raised our own food. We didn’t have any money, but we always had plenty to eat.”
Others in the community were hit harder. “They were down to wearing rags,” he said.
After completing his training, Perry was sent to a staging area in North Africa, then to Sicily, where his unit was dropped in an effort to take the island.
“We took a lot of flak and fire,” he said. “You talk about scared. ...My chute — one of the risers got cut, and I was swinging at an odd angle. I thought I was gone. I managed to pull back enough the other way to come in and land safely, but that was a scare.”
After capturing Sicily, the troops spent three months bottled up in the harbor, waiting for enough Allied troops to gather to continue the offensive. They were shelled every day.
“We could expect it every morning as a wake-up call,” Perry said.
Finally, they were pulled out and sent to England.
“My first action after that was the Allied airborne invasion in Holland,” he said. “We were supposed to take the bridges.”
Perry earned a Bronze Star and mention in the book, “A Bridge Too Far,” by Cornelius Ryan, for his actions in the effort to take the bridge at Nimegan.
“We captured the bridge and held it until the other troops got there,” he said. “We dug in and held that thing until we were ready to move on.”
With the troops lost and scattered, Perry was sent to go back and try to make radio contact.
“I went back along the canals, ducking and crouching and all that stuff, expecting every minute to get shot, until I could get some radio contact and tell the rest of the company where we were and to get on up there,” he said. “We had the bridge, and we were gonna hold that … thing, but we wanted to know how long we were gonna have to hold it by ourselves.”
He did what he had to do — what he was supposed to do.
He served out of a sense of duty, but he remembers the relief of being sent home.
“I got back in September 1945,” he said. “I served three years, three months and 21 days.”
Perry felt blessed to be back in the states and to have what he had.
“After the war, we had a little bit more to eat and were able to do more things,” he said. “I thought I was lucky, that I had it made. What did I have to cry about?”
He had lived through the Depression; its only lasting effect on him was his distrust of banks.
“When the banks decided to pay 10 cents on the dollar, I had $190 saved up in the bank,” he said. “I got $19 for it. For a long time after that, I wouldn’t trust a bank; I wouldn’t deposit my money in the bank; I kept it on me.”
He also had his memories of the war. Perry found work in the tobacco industry as a bookkeeper and a factory foreman, and he eventually moved to Wrightsville Beach as an insurance adjuster.
He had visited the community as a teenager and had pledged that he would return to live here if he could. He even passed up promotions in order to stay.
“They kept trying to give me promotions to go somewhere else, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ All I wanted was a job right here,” he said. “I liked the people, and I liked the work. I didn’t want to move around all the time anyway.”
Fifty years later, Perry still lives in Wrightsville Beach. In the 1970s and ’80s, he served as the town clerk.
Those who enjoy the town and its beaches today, those who enjoy the freedoms we take for granted, owe a debt of gratitude to Perry and the other soldiers who fought and died in World War II. But when asked about it, those who saw it firsthand are more than likely to agree with Perry — they were just doing what they were supposed to do.
This is the Greatest Generation — and the most humble.
The Noble Cause
By Marimar McNaughton
In downtown Wrightsville Beach, in the Saffo Building he purchased with his cousin Doky Saffo in 1947, George Saffo, 82, anchors the corner booth at Tower 7. Young professional builders and boat brokers holler, “Hey George!” across the crowded dining room at lunch time. He is, by every definition, a distinguished local character.
“I don’t plan ahead. I try to keep my life as simple as possible,” says a sage Saffo.
His family traces its roots back to the tiny island of Ikaria in the Greek archipelago, and to New Hanover County, where his grandfather Avgerinos “George” Saffo arrived in 1895.
“He had a friend here who was a candy maker. They made pretty candy, fudges, peanut brittles, coconut brittles, sugar-coated peanuts and seasonal chocolate rabbits, little chicks and chickens,” Saffo says.
Born in Wilmington in 1924, he lives in a 1920s-vintage home on Shore Drive, one of the first to be built on Harbor Island, a home he inherited from his father, who died in 1966.
Saffo served his country for two and a half years between 1944 and 1947. Like many of his peers, he was drafted. Unlike many of his peers, he had enrolled in college and was at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill when he got his card from Uncle Sam.
“‘We want you!’ That was it. You didn’t go to Canada. You didn’t go to Timbuktu. You just went where they told you to go,” Saffo says.
“The people of that time weren’t as rebellious as they are today. They listened to pretty much what they were told in school, by their parents. I’m talking about the ’30s and the ’40s and the ’50s. Our expectations weren’t as high. We didn’t have to have an automobile when we were 16 years old. All of our actions were more reserved, more conservative. There was a more respectful attitude toward parents and elders.”
When Saffo volunteered, he was allowed a 90-day deferment to finish his freshman year, then he joined the Air Force.
“I didn’t want to walk through Europe. I thought I’d ride,” Saffo says. “All of the boys that I knew from school, five or six guys, left together.”
From Wilmington, they reported to Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, for orientation; from there to Biloxi, Mississippi, for three months of basic training.
“It was 110 degrees. They worked the living hell out of you from
5 o’clock in the morning until dark, and you were ready for your bed.”
From basic, they were sent to St. Anselm College in Manchester, N. H., to study math and aerodynamics, then to Nashville, Tennessee, for testing. Then they split up. By this time, March 1944, the war was winding up. “As I was going from base to base, we were basically closing them up,” he says.
The rest of Saffo’s stint was spent behind the trigger of a gun, flying practice missions in B-17s and B-25s. He fired rounds into moving targets towed by other aircraft. His skill was measured on the ground during the shell count. He remembers less about his accuracy, more about the lifestyle.
“They kept me in the best hotels in Florida,” Saffo remembers. “The only time I went out of the country, I went to Cuba, the most sophisticated island in the Caribbean.”
Saffo believes that the American soldier of that era wanted to go, get it over with, and get back home.
“There weren’t many soldiers that I knew of that wanted to be career soldiers at that time,” he says.
“I think the most important thing that happened to all the boys who came back, the ones that had family businesses to go into, they were fine, and the thing that helped those that didn’t was the fact that there was schooling. It really gave those people who took advantage of the education a big boost. [But] a lot of people fell through the cracks,” Saffo says.
After two and a half years, Saffo came home from the service. He returned to the family-owned restaurant in downtown Wilmington at 249 N. Front St. near the Murchison Building. As a boy, he had peeled potatoes and washed dishes. As an adult, he managed the dining room, during the noon to 11 shift, replacing an uncle who had passed away. That first year back, he juggled his schedule to complete a second year of college at UNCW.
Saffo says his years of military service had little effect on him.
“If I had gotten into the actual fire fight that was going on in Europe, I’m sure it would have made some differences. I didn’t see the hardship, the death. I lost a lot of friends. Some of them didn’t even finish high school before they joined up. I came in a year and a half later. I had many good friends that were killed, that bothered me quite a bit. They went in early. They were right in the thick of the fight when the planes that went out wouldn’t come back in.”
“One of the finest young men this town’s ever had was a young man named Jim Lynch. He was all-everything in high school. There was no title that he didn’t have. We went up to Chapel Hill together. When he got his card, he immediately volunteered. He was 20 years old, and he was dead.”
“Numerous people who knew him have declared Jim was truly destined for stardom, governor at least,” Wilbur Jones Jr. wrote in “The Journey Continues.” Lynch died in a crash returning from the 31st mission in his P-51 Mustang.
“We had to fight World War II, we didn’t have a choice,” Saffo said, “but since that time, I haven’t seen a war that was worth fighting over. I don’t believe in killing. I don’t see anything beneficial coming out of war. We’re certainly going through one now that proves that point. You can quote me on that one. I’m opinionated, but I do a lot of thinking about my opinions before I give them. If you show me a better way, I’m willing to give it some thought.”
Saffo believes the United States is still the most wonderful country in the world.
“I hate to see it go down the tubes. I’m angry because of the mistakes we’re making to this beautiful country. In this country, you can be whatever you want to be if you have the desire and the willingness to go after it. There’s no other country in the world in which you can do that,” he says.
Back on the home front, Saffo was befriended by Wilmington writer Robert Ruark and visited the acclaimed writer in his castle in Spain in 1958. With a business partner, he recently purchased a biography of Ruark, scheduled for release in 2007.
Still Flying High, 65 Years Later
By Abby Cavenaugh
It was a different world in 1942, when 24-year-old Thomas Tilley and his 21-year-old bride Mary tied the knot.
“We paid five cents for a Coca-Cola, 10 cents for a hamburger,” Mary reminisces. “We never locked our front door or back door. It was a lot different in those days.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the couple’s love for each other, still strong 65 years after their March 14 nuptials. “We’ve had a real nice life,” says Thomas, casting an affectionate glance at his wife from across the living room of their Bahama Drive home. “We’ve never had anything but love for each other.”
The two met on a blind date in 1939, while he was attending State College (now N.C. State University), in Raleigh, and she was getting an associate’s degree at nearby Peace College. The only separation during their long marriage occurred in their first year together, when Thomas was sent to fight in northern Africa, from June 1942 until May 1943.
Thomas graduated from flight school at Foster Air Force Base, in Victoria, Texas, just five days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was at a hotel in nearby San Antonio, where most of the Air Force cadets were staying prior to their graduation, when a fellow cadet delivered the stunning news. After graduation, he went to New York and Connecticut for further training.
Training of a sort, at least. The airmen trained in six different aircraft. When he left to go to war, he had logged a grand total of nine hours in the P-40 in which he would be sent into harm’s way.
The Tilleys married at First Presbyterian Church, in Raleigh. There was no honeymoon, with the U.S. now at war. “We got out of the church and got in my car and headed for Bridgeport, Connecticut, right then, that minute, not later, right then,” he recalls with a laugh.
Within days, Thomas was waving goodbye to his bride from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ranger as it left New York bound for northern Africa. He recalls a conversation with a fellow flyer: “I was standing on the deck, looking, and I said, ‘Gee, this is pretty short. How long is it?’ He said, ‘700 feet,’ and I said, ‘That’s pretty short.’ He said, ‘I got news for you; you only get half of that.’” Thomas pauses, chuckling. “He was right, we did.”
Mary remembers the short flight deck, as well: “That is walking space, it looks like to me. They take [the plane] to the end of the boat and pray that it doesn’t go down,” when taking off.
The planes and their pilots made it safely off the ship in Ghana and were attached to the Royal Air Force in support of the British army. “We didn’t have American ground troops [in Africa] at all,” he says. “They came in from Casablanca later.”
Thomas flew a P-40 fighter/bomber armed with 500-pound bombs on 70 missions against German forces all along the Mediterranean coast. He looks back on his missions with great pride. “We fought them all the way to China. It took 11 months to do that,” he says. “But what we didn’t realize at the time was that we prevented the Germans from taking the Suez Canal.”
There were casualties along the way, of course. “We took 72 airplanes and 72 pilots off the carrier,” Thomas says. “At the end of the campaign, when we pushed the Germans out, we had lost about a third of our pilots.”
He’s lost even more friends in the years since the war’s end.
“These 72 people that went off the carrier … we only have about a dozen now left,” he says, three of whom he has remained close to. “Got one that lives in California, one in Arizona and one lives in Arkansas,” he says. “All three of us were in the same squadron before we went overseas. They’re the ones I go to see when I go to the reunions.” A fourth good friend died within the past year.
While Thomas was off fighting in the war, Mary wasn’t exactly whiling away the hours pining for her new husband. She returned to Raleigh after his deployment and went to work for the Department of Agriculture. She also decided to learn how to fly, to learn “to speak [Thomas’] language.” She began taking lessons at the local airport.
“Right before he got back, I got to solo. ...I’ll never forget it. Right across the highway was a cemetery, and I thought, ‘I don’t have anybody else but me up here, and I’m flying over tombstones,’ which didn’t help my fear at all.”
Mary landed without incident, but, unfortunately, never really got to test her wings further. “He got back, and they froze civilian flyers for I don’t know how long it was,” she says.
The delay left her with only the one experience piloting an airplane. Nevertheless, she calls the Tilleys “an air family,” with good reason.
Thomas returned from the war, but stayed in the military, eventually logging 30 years in the Air Force. He was twice stationed in Alaska, once in Greenland and was involved in developing air defenses during the Cold War. Both daughters married Air Force men in the Air Force Academy Chapel, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the family lived for 30 years, even after Thomas’ retirement. These days, one son-in-law is retired, while another is still flying as a pilot for FedEx. As for Thomas, he saw no reason to climb back into the cockpit after he retired.
Thomas agrees with Mary’s suggestion that he “could’ve been a pilot,” but being a commercial airline pilot is like being a truck driver, he opines. “You’re just up and down, up and down. There’s no fun to it. I flew right up to the end of my 30 years. When I retired, I said, that’s it. I wasn’t going to try to fly puddle jumpers. I’d already flown the fastest planes we had in the Air Force at that time.”
After the Air Force, Thomas worked in various administrative capacities before he and Mary moved to Wrightsville Beach in 1999, buying and renovating the cottage they’d previously been renting for 20 years.
Nevertheless, Thomas’ heart remains in the sky. When he first decided to join the Air Force, he says, “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking I was going to be a ground-pounder or infantry; I was going to be a pilot, so that’s what I did. I followed up on that. It worked out real good for me.”
There never was a question of whether or not he would serve. “It was just a different attitude about the young men then,” Mary says. “They were all just ready to go. I think that’s the reason Tom Brokaw called them the Greatest Generation — the guys were just so eager to get that training over with and get this war over.”
Thomas takes pride in the Greatest Generation label. “I was part of winning World War II,” he says, “If the Germans had taken the Suez Canal, they’d have gotten all the oil in the Middle East. Then they would’ve turned north and met up with all the other Germans in Russia. So I think that was a turning point,” he says of the theater in which he fought.
Home Front Soldier
By Crystal Walton
Not everyone who served in World War II traveled to foreign, dangerous locales.
Discussions of the home front during the war historically revolve around individual families and the impact of the war on people at home. But a large contingent of soldiers stayed in the United States during the war, their military training often taking them to places that they had only dreamt of visiting. Theirs was a different type of home-front experience.
Longtime Wrightsville Beach resident Clyde Gentry, a native of Robeson County, was born in 1925 and grew up in the long shadows cast by the Great Depression.
His father ran a grocery store and was generous with the bartering system, Gentry said.
“Back then, if you passed a penny on the ground, you would bend down and pick it up,” he recounted. “I remember as a kid, people wouldn’t be able to pay. They would bring something in to exchange, eggs or something. When the doctor came to see us, sometimes we wouldn’t have the money, and we would exchange something for it.”
Gentry first learned about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Midway, the small town where he had grown up. Two years later, at 17, he enlisted in the Navy. “I knew the draft was coming, so I decided to pick where I wanted to be,” he said. “I had heard stories about people being in the Army and stomping through the mud. I figured if I was going to get wet, I wanted to get wet with water, not mud.”
Gentry went to Raleigh for a physical, then was immediately whisked to the train station and wound up in Maryland. “I thought I was going back home,” he said. “I didn’t know I was leaving right then to be gone for awhile.”
Neither did his parents. Gentry said he wrote them letters, and after he was issued a uniform, sent his civilian clothes home, which proved to be alarming.
“When you got there, they painted a number across your chest,” he said. “When I sent the clothes back home, my mother saw red on my undershirt and she was worried that I had already been hurt.”
A whirlwind of travel and training marked the next several years of his life. Gentry traveled across the country. He went from Maryland to Miami, to New Jersey and Tennessee.
North Carolina born-and-bred, Gentry had never been so far from home. “I remember when people got called to jury duty in Lumberton, it was about 30 miles away,” he said of the years before his enlistment. “People would come back and sit around the grocery store and talk about all the things they saw when they went into town. It was a real adventure.”
He specialized in radio operation and initially learned Morse code and radar training.
“Back then, radar was a big secret,” he said. “You had to get checked in and everything was top-secret. The funny thing was that you could go downtown and get a Popular Mechanics magazine and read all about it.”
Eventually, his training prepared him to be a radio operator for dive bombers. “I loved that,” he said with eyes gleaming, remembering the adrenaline rush of long ago. “It was really something. When you go in a dive, anything on the floor will float up, because of the gravity. When you pull out sometimes, you go into a red-out, everything turns red, or a black-out, everything turns black. They teach you about it in training, but it was really powerful.”
About a year-and-a-half into all this preparation, Gentry and more than 100 members of his team decided they had enough training. “It was hard to keep training and never go into combat,” he said. “One guy says, ‘let’s all sign a paper that says we want an immediate transfer to combat duty.’ About 120 of us signed that sheet of paper, and he presented it to an officer who said he wasn’t going to take it any higher. ‘You are almost in mutiny,’ he told us. ‘You are uprising and questioning what is happening to you.’ He tore that paper up, and he saved our hides. We could have really been in some trouble.”
After being discharged, Gentry signed up for two stints in the Naval Reserves, and was eventually called back up for active duty during the Korean War.
This time, he was sent to the West Coast, both Seattle and California, before being transferred to Washington, D.C., where he did cryptography.
“I had learned the Russian alphabet,” he said. “We worked on cracking codes; it could be letters, it could be numbers or a combination of both. It was top-secret. When you came home and people would ask you what you were doing, you couldn’t say. That would have gotten you put away in jail for life. It seems like it was 15 years after you were out that you couldn’t talk about it.”
Gentry’s stint with the Navy helped shape the path for the rest of his life. “I think what it really did was it made me grow up,” he said. “It trained me in discipline.”
When Gentry returned home, he would be asked about his service and his duties. “A lot of it, you couldn’t talk about,” he said. “Some of your friends had been in a battle or something, and all you felt like you had done was train the whole time. You kind of did feel bad, but there was nothing you could do about it.”
After his service, Gentry wound up at East Carolina University, where he met his wife Peggy. They eventually moved to Wrightsville Beach, just in time for Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
They left the beach for years, with Gentry working for the Social Security Administration for 26 years before he retired in 1982.
“I never thought I would live at the beach, ever,” he said. “As kids, we would go to White Lake — that was a big thing. To go to the beach was out of this world. To live here, that never crossed my mind back then.”
Gentry said part of the reason his generation is considered great is because of the volunteerism. “So many people signed up and served in the war,” he said. “It was just something that you did.”
The Life Guard’s Stand
By Bill Walsh
A case of mistaken identity brought Cecil Robinson and Silvey Presson face to face for the first time. He was life guarding at Lumina, as he had done for the past six years, when she approached from behind, thinking he was someone else. “Later in the summer, he found a mutual friend to introduce us,” Silvey says. “That was in the summer of ’38.”
Not the deepest slough of the Depression, but not exactly high times, either. But both the Robinson family and the Presson family were doing all right. Indeed, Cecil had just finished his freshman year at Clemson.
“We first came to Wrightsville Beach in 1922, and we stayed in a tent a couple of blocks south of Lumina,” Cecil recalls of his growing up here. “There were not very many people here. The second summer, we went back down to the beach, and we stayed in Butt’s Cottage. It was a nice, big cottage in those days. The third spring, my father built a house about one block north of Lumina on the sound side, and that’s where we started living year ’round in 1924.
“All we did was fish in the summertime, and peddle fish on the beach. My father had a charter boat, and I went out on charters with him. He was a carpenter in the wintertime.” It was hardscrabble, but the situation was eased by the sea’s bounty. “Actually, we lived off seafood,” he says, “fish, clams, oysters, scallops. Believe it or not, we’d occasionally shoot a blue heron for meat. My mother cooked them a number of times.”
Silvey was born and raised in Wilmington, but spent a lot of time here growing up, the earliest photograph putting her on the beach at about 2 years of age. Her father owned an electrical company in Wilmington. The Depression “definitely affected him,” she says, “though I was not as aware of it.
“Even though it was the Depression, it wasn’t all downhearted,” she says, recalling fondly the warm days at the beach and the dances at Lumina. But the Depression shaped this generation’s experience, she says, “because it made you appreciative when money became freer, and you had a choice. During the Depression, there was no choice; you had to do without. When the economy became free, when it became such a booming economy, when we had the best economy in the world, you had choices. You could blow it and have nothing left, or you could look to the future and save. I think so many of the people who went through the Depression learned to look to the future. I think that’s why a majority of people who are of our generation are self-sufficient and are not depending on the government or their children, and they never expected to.”
“As I was coming along,” Cecil adds, “we didn’t have any money to spend. When I first went to college, I had to buy my Clemson uniforms, and I was dead broke at the end of every month. I got tired of being broke. I said I would never go in debt again. When we were married, I said we won’t buy anything until we have the money to pay cash for it. Ever since … she calls me a miser,” he says with a smile.
June 6 is a huge day in world history. In 1944, the Allies invaded France, launching the final push to defeat the Nazis. A few years earlier, in 1941, June 6 served as a milestone for Cecil and Silvey Robinson, as well. “I had four things happen to me that one day,” he recalls. “I got my diploma, I got my commission, I got my travel order to report to duty in 20 days, and I got her mother’s permission to marry her.”
Cecil had been in the ROTC while pursuing a degree in industrial engineering at Clemson, and was ordered to Camp Wheeler, in Georgia, then to Fort McLelland, in Alabama, where he gave basic-training instruction to new recruits. Then he was sent to Panama to defend the canal, which, military planners feared, was either in German or Japanese crosshairs, perhaps even a target of both.
“When he got his orders to go to Panama, we went down to New Orleans, and they held them there for a month, because the Germans were torpedoing boats in the Gulf of Mexico,” Silvey says. “We saw one boat that they brought in with the big holes. Luckily, they were above the waterline and the boat didn’t sink. When they shipped out, they hugged the coastline all the way.”
Cecil spent three years of the war in Central America. During his absence, Silvey worked as an accountant in the Wilmington shipyard. “During the war, as far as civilians were concerned, I think there was a friendship, an open friendship,” she says. “Everyone had a common goal of winning. There was an unseen bond among most people that hadn’t been there before, and isn’t there now.”
That is a common theme that often finds voice in gatherings of the war’s veterans. It has been under some scrutiny in recent years, with some historians taking a questioning look at support for the war in those days. “I don’t remember anything like that,” Silvey says with firmness and finality. “There is always somebody who is going to resist what’s going on, good or bad. So I am sure there were some somewhere. But 99 percent of the population, in my opinion, was behind getting it over with the right way, and that carried over into the friendship with people. At least here in Wilmington,” she says.
When the war ended, the Robinsons settled in Wrightsville Beach, where Cecils’s two brothers and a brother-in-law had purchased Lumina Pavilion. “We built a house with apartments in it that we rented out to tourists,” Silvey says. “All types of building materials had been rationed during the war, and you couldn’t build anything. Cecil had designed a house, just the part that we could get permission to build. We were getting ready to build it when they lifted the building restrictions, so he designed the rest of it. The house is at 8 Nathan Street.”
Cecil was summoned to serve his country again in 1950, and spent six months on the front lines in Korea. “When they called me back, I had four daughters, one a babe in arms,” he says. “She had the house to take care of, with the rentals and so forth, and I kind of stressed out on that.” And, no doubt, on the situation in which he found himself. When he first arrived in Korea, “we were marching to the front, at night, and all these refugees were going south and we were going north. We could hear the machine guns chattering and big guns firing. We went up, marched up to the front lines … but we didn’t have a piece of ammunition, not a single piece with which to protect ourselves. That was frightening,” he says.
That war over, Cecil came home and went to work at Babcock and Wilcox, in Wilmington, where he would spend his entire civilian career. Silvey stayed home with their four daughters and went to work outside the home again when the youngest was a junior in high school.
“We gave them an allowance,” Silvey says of raising the children with the Depression still a vivid memory. “We lived near Lumina, and their tendency would be to run down there and spend it on the pinball machines. Pinball machines were a no-no. You have this much allowance; when it’s gone, it’s gone,” she says.
“We taught those girls to make up their beds and hang up their bathing suits,” he adds. “If they missed it, I charged them a quarter. They learned to do their jobs around the house.”
And they learned their parents’ lessons about thrift and money management. The girls wanted a boat, and their parents acquiesced — provided they could raise half the money. They baby-sat. They worked a garden and sold produce from a Middle Sound piece of property that Cecil and Silvey bought. They saved. They got the boat.
“The way we were raised had a definite influence on the way we raised our children,” Silvey says. “They never wanted for anything, but we did teach them how to save and do their own thing.”
“They got us through the Depression and World War II and rebuilt the American economy, with genuine courage, hard work and class,” a grateful blogger posted on the Web last Veterans Day, speaking about the generation as a whole, though he could have been addressing Silvey and Cecil Robinson directly. They “knew loss and sacrifice followed by a new stability. No whining, self-pity or blaming. I think of them as the quietly strong. Today, every day, we can salute them.”
Quietly strong is an outstanding feature of the generation, Tom Brokaw agrees in his book. A veteran in his childhood neighborhood “…was one of many in our midst who kept his war years to himself, preferring to concentrate on the generations that followed,” Brokaw writes. “He is so characteristic of that time and place in American life.”
If we are the Greatest Generation, Silvey Robinson says, perhaps it is because we had the greatest opportunities, which is, perhaps typically, how people of her generation viewed the deprivations of the Depression, the horrors of world conflict — they were training for making the world a better place.
“The challenge,” Capt. David Schue says from his office in the upper reaches of the USS North Carolina, “is making this ship — and what its crew did during the war — understandable to the younger generations.” He frets about meeting it. For one, the times are just so very different. For another, high school history texts are failing. Miserably.
“I had to do a paper a few years ago,” Schue says, “so I actually went and got the history book that is used at Hoggard and Laney [high schools]. If you wonder why the kids don’t understand World War II and the real impact of arguably the most significant period in the 20th century, go look at a high school history text.
“From the lead-up to the end of the war was 34 pages,” he says, “and that includes all the charts, graphs and images. You lose all visibility on anything specific.”
Iwo Jima and Okinawa were two months apart, Schue notes, and Iwo Jima ranks among the bloodiest battles of the war. They are dispatched in the history texts in the same sentence.
Though the USS North Carolina has been decommissioned for more than a half-century, Schue and his staff continue to serve the military, and the veterans — especially and whenever possible the 700 to 800 still-living servicemen who served aboard this battleship.
“For the military, we do reunions and memorial services. A lot of re-enlistments are done here, as are commissioning ceremonies, promotion ceremonies, and retirement ceremonies.”
Perhaps the most important function Schue and his staff are providing World War II veterans is recording their oral histories, on which “we spend a lot of time and a lot of money,” he says. “A lot of the raw data is here and with our webmaster at his studio. But so far, we have just touched the tip of the iceberg.”
Much more money and effort is needed to edit the material, making it more useful for historians and researchers — and for the generations to come, lest they otherwise lose sight of the towering accomplishments of these great men and women.