It was a gorgeous, warm, sunny Saturday afternoon on the grounds surrounding the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. My family was in our regular spot setting up our canopy, tables, chairs, and food for yet another tailgate party. That’s our tradition before every home Navy football game, and it’s been that way for my wife Blairlee and my in-laws for many years. Noticeably hoisted in our little camp is the United States Naval Academy Class of 1942 banner. Blairlee’s grandfather, Commander Robert Childers, USN (ret.), was a Class of ’42 graduate. When he and his wife died in 2000 and 2001 respectively, my mother-in-law took on the duty of hoisting their class’s banner. That banner has been posted in the same spot for many, many years and to this day reminds every passerby of one of the greatest classes the Academy has ever known.
Over the years, the number of Class of ’42 graduates who show up to their tailgate party has steadily dwindled down. They’re all in their late 80’s and early 90’s now. So at most of our tailgate parties, my family members, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Robert Childers, USNA 1942, are the only ones present.
But on this past Saturday afternoon as we were setting up for the much-anticipated Navy-Air Force game, two men from the Class of ’42 parked and strolled over to join us. They came with coolers of food and drink and plenty of conversation. One of them seemed to be particularly careful to make sure we each had enough to eat and drink. I guess that was his grandfatherly side showing itself! As I asked them questions and got to know them, I saw that these men carried an air of both strength and humility. Like so many other women and men in uniform, they served, often in dangerous assignments, defending our country and asking for very little in return. They were sailors who spent the better part of their adulthood as officers in the United States Navy. They served all over the world, retired in the early 1970’s, and worked civilian jobs until they reached their second retirement. They weren’t quick to tell war stories or talk much about the things they accomplished. It’s almost as if their service in the Navy was as much a part of their being as breathing. (I mean, who waxes eloquent about taking a breath?)
As I got to know these men from the Class of ’42, I learned the distinctive mark of their class: they graduated and were commissioned a semester early. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan, launching the United States into World War II. Eleven days later, on December 19, 1941, the USNA Class of 1942 graduated and were deployed into war. 44 of them died during the conflict. Now, out of a class of 563, there are about 100 left.
These men are a part of a dying breed, a generation once dubbed by journalist Tom Brockaw as “the Greatest Generation.” Born in the late teens and early twenties of the last century, this generation grew up during the Great Depression. Over 10-million of them served in World War II while the rest stayed home to operate an extremely efficient war machine. When the war ended, they started families and built an enormous industrial, academic, economic, and military force which would elevate the United States to be the greatest superpower the world has ever known.
Never before or after this generation has our country seen the kind of ingenuity, loyalty, and hard work they produced. They were the parents of my parents, and they were my grandparents. And there are fewer of them as the years pass along.
Sadly, this will be the last Navy football season in which the Class of ’42 will host a tailgating spot. With so few who come to games anymore, the survivors of their class elected to give up their spot. So, we’re doing it up big this year, celebrating and remembering a class of true heroes. Long after the last of the USNA Class of 1942 dies, their legacy will live on, not only in the United States Navy, but throughout the country and our world. They forever challenge future generations to live up to our best– to live a life of service, honor, sacrifice, faith, and hard work for the betterment of the world around us.