Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation” to describe the veterans who helped win World War II and went on to reshape America into an industrial superpower. World War II was the deadliest war in modern human history — 60 million people killed between 1939-’45, as the globe was swept into total war. When the bloodshed was over and American veterans came home, many saw the public lands of their country with new eyes. Its wild beauty comforted them even as they recognized its vulnerability, and it wasn’t long before some became staunch defenders of wilderness.
In Montana, I think of my late friend Loren Kreck, who was an energetic kid growing up in Los Angeles when he signed up for military service. He flew Corsair fighter planes off aircraft carriers in the South Pacific. After the war, Loren and his wife, Mary, settled in Montana, where they opened a dentistry office, raised a couple of boys and roamed the woods and waters by canoe, hiking boots and cross-country skis. Loren played pond hockey into his 80s, regularly schooling opponents half his age, like me.
Loren was among the founders of the Montana Wilderness Association, helped preserve the Scapegoat and Great Bear Wilderness Areas, and fought polluters in his beloved Flathead Valley. He and his wife led the charge to stop a smelter from polluting Glacier National Park and prevented an effluent-spewing pulp mill from being built upstream from the spectacularly clean Flathead Lake. Of course, his more shortsighted neighbors targeted Kreck, passing around bumper stickers saying “To Heck with Kreck.”
Loren was my friend and a true hero, but he was not the only veteran who courageously fought to save the West’s wild lands. I also think of David Brower, who was a lieutenant in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, winning the Bronze Star in Italy. He turned the Sierra Club into a national political powerhouse, helped save the Grand Canyon from being flooded by a proposed dam, and won enough other conservation victories to fill books.
Then there’s Michael Frome, now 90 and still writing, who was a Navy navigator during the war’s Pacific Theater. He went on to become a crusading journalist, educator and lifelong defender of our national parks and wilderness. Bud Moore is another fighter for wild places. He grew up a homesteader’s child in western Montana, and as a Marine he led troops in some of the more notorious battles of the South Pacific. At home, he worked for the Forest Service as a voice for wilderness preservation and smarter fire management.
Tom Bell of Lander, Wyo., was a ranch hand who became a gunner on bombing raids over Germany until a chunk of enemy flak tore one eye out. He went on to found the nonprofit Wyoming Outdoor Council and the environmental publication High Country News. Both have become robust Western institutions that are celebrating their 40th birthdays this year. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when the United States firebombed the city. He famously turned that experience into the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, and continued to write passionately (and often hilariously) about environmental themes. He followed Western public-land issues closely well into his elderly years in New York City.
None of these warriors were the least bit warlike after they got home. They didn’t parade their valor, but often spoke for peace as fervently as they defended the environment. These veterans shared the sensibilities that helped shape postwar America: They loved America deeply, both the people and the stunning landscape itself; they witnessed ungodly evil and massive destruction by industrial nations run amok; they knew that when Americans worked together toward a common goal, they were a mighty force. Most of all, they had guts and were not afraid of a fight.
In an era when patriotism is sometimes a refuge for blowhards, it’s good to remember that the truest patriots are often the quiet ones. Loren Kreck flew an American flag over his property -- in the backyard, where strangers were unlikely to notice it. What mattered to him was that he could see it, flapping over the still-sparkling waters of the Flathead River and waving toward the pristine splendor of the Great Bear Wilderness Area.
Our nation is now saying thanks and goodbye to the Greatest Generation, as their span on Earth draws to a close. May we never see another horror like World War II, but may all Americans continue to learn from the example of these true, land-loving patriots.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer and conservationist in Kalispell, Montana.
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