A grassroots, nonprofit movement is underway to establish an annual day to remember and preserve the legacy of what Tom Brokaw famously called "the Greatest Generation," the generation that faced, fought, and emerged victorious from the Great Depression and World War II.

The campaign is called "Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive!" In 2010, Congress voted unanimous support for observing the second Sunday in August—coinciding with the day President Harry S Truman announced World War II was over—as a National Spirit of ’45 Day. It is intended as a time to say "Thank you" to the members of the Greatest Generation, which is rapidly passing away.

Beyond preserving the memory of what that generation faced and accomplished, the Spirit of ’45 Day is intended to serve as an annual call for re-dedication to their can-do spirit of courage, self-sacrifice and national unity, to help America face and solve its current and future challenges.

World History Group is proud to be a partner in promoting the Spirit of ’45 Day. In this interview, Warren C. Hegg, national supervisor for the Spirit of ’45 project, answers questions about the campaign.

HistoryNet: What motivated you to start the Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive! campaign?

Warren C. Hegg: Our nonprofit organization has been mobilizing youth to document the lives of our World War II generation since we began as a NASA project in 1996, predating Tom Brokaw’s book and Steven Spielberg’s epic Saving Private Ryan. Our goal at the time was to give some young people an opportunity to apply their computer skills in a way that benefited their community.

Warren G. Hegg, national supervisor for the Keep the Spirit of '45 Alive! project.
Warren G. Hegg, national supervisor for the Keep the Spirit of '45 Alive! project.
We recruited a group of kids who had a disability, including several youngsters with terminal illnesses, and teamed them up with seniors who didn’t have any idea of how to use the power of computers, to collaborate on making “digital stories,” short videos of the defining events in the elders’ lives and using the multimedia techniques that filmmaker Ken Burns used so effectively in producing his Civil War miniseries.

The kids brought the technology, the seniors brought their stories, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After a while it was clear that people of a particular age shared a common story—growing up during the difficult times of the Great Depression, serving their country in World War II, and coming home to restart their lives as America assumed responsibility for rebuilding a shattered world.

HN: How did the young volunteers react to what they were hearing?

WCH: It’s quite a saga, and to hear it told by the people who actually lived these events, describing their first-hand experiences and feelings in their own words, illustrated with photos, music, and sound effects using the new digital tools that were beginning to emerge in Silicon Valley, well, it was really powerful and made a deep and lasting impression on the young people who helped the veterans produce their videos.

We called the program “Stories of Service,” to acknowledge not only the service of the veterans, but also that of the youth and their adult assistants, who all volunteered their time and skills to help the seniors produce their videos.

For the storytellers it was very cathartic, as few of the veterans had ever shared their memories with their families. Remembering their wartime experiences was still very painful for them. Many still had "survivor’s guilt" thinking about those who lost their lives and never had the opportunity to return home to reunite with friends and family and go on with their lives. None wanted to glorify war in any way, but wanted young people to understand how people not much older than they were willing to sacrifice everything to protect America and the freedoms that so many of us seem to take for granted.

Stories of Service received considerable attention in the media and received numerous awards, including three medals from the Smithsonian Institution in recognition of our “visionary use of technology to benefit society.” More than 300 of our "digital stories" are in the archives of the National Museum of American History and we were founding members of the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

HN: And how did this lead to the Spirit of ’45 movement?

WCH: On August 14, 2008, we hosted a symposium on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA, inviting more than 30 of the leading World War II history and heritage organizations to join us for an intensive workshop on how to support each other’s mission. During our deliberations, the idea of creating a new annual day of remembrance devoted to reflecting on the achievements of the World War II generation emerged. Edith Shain, the nurse who was photographed being kissed by a joyous sailor in Times Square, joined us for dinner which was held in the ballroom where Bob Hope gave his famous performance in September 1939, on the night when England declared war on Nazi Germany. She suggested there be a National Spirit of ’45 Day, and offered to use her “accidental celebrity” as the women in the famous “Kiss” photo, to help promote this idea.

However, nothing really happened until Stories of Service national spokesman Ernest Borgnine joined Edith as honorary grand marshals in the 2009 National Memorial Day Parade Washington, D.C., and attended at a rally at the National World War II Memorial where they talked about the need for a special day to honor the achievements of the men and women of their generation.

Thanks to the support of a growing number of like-minded organizations and individuals, we were able to get a joint resolution passed in Congress last year— unanimously, I might add—endorsing a national Spirit of ’45 Day, just in time for the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II on August 14.

Ed Bilger, national coordinator of buglers, beside the Spirit of '45 truck. Click to enlarge.
Ed Bilger, national coordinator of buglers, beside the Spirit of '45 truck. Click to enlarge.
HN: What are some of the Spirit of ’45 activities that are scheduled for 2011?

WCH: Last year, despite the fact that most people were unaware of Spirit of ’45 Day, more than 800 communities organized activities to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the end of the war on August 14, 1945. These included events in Times Square and observances in all Major League Baseball games played that day, hundreds of open houses hosted at state veterans homes and senior living communities in almost every state, and buglers performing “Taps” at the close of the Day from the East Coast to Hawaii.

This year we expect the number of participating communities to increase now that the Congress has voted to recognize an annual national Spirit of ’45 Day to be observed on every second Sunday in August.

A big Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive! show will be taking place on the evening of Saturday, August 13, at the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu, Hawaii, starring Country singer Lee Greenwood. This open-air concert will be a “wake up call” to America, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It will include a special tribute to the Japanese Americans who served in World War II who will be receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor this year.

Major League Baseball teams will be hosting Spirit of ’45 Day observances again this year during the games played on Sunday, August 14, or, if they are not playing at home that day, at games played earlier in the week. The San Diego Padres, who will be having their Spirit of ’45 Day on the evening on August 15, produced a video narrated by one of our national spokesmen, Jerry Coleman, that is being distributed to all the clubs, several of which are providing free seats to members of the Greatest Generation so they can be honored during their games.

Groups in the San Francisco Bay Area are organizing a two-day Spirit of ’45 Weekend that will begin on the morning of August 13, when a convoy made up of dozens of World War II military vehicles will escort a 6-foot statue of the famous Times Square Kiss from the Rosie the Riveter/Home Front Historical Park in Richmond, California, through the City of San Francisco to San Jose’s 14-acre History Park. The event will feature exhibits, live entertainment, and a special tribute to Edith Shain, the Times Square Nurse who devoted the last years of her life to promoting the idea of a National Spirit of ’45 Day, right up until her death on June 20 last year, just a few weeks before her 92nd birthday.

HN: We imagine a number of museums would be getting involved.

WCH: Many World War II museums and heritage groups are having events this year, including members of the Historical Navy Ships Association, the Tuskegee Airmen and several others. For example, the USS Kidd, which hosted this year’s Spirit of ’45 National Leaders Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will again be having a major event, as will the Veterans Museum & Memorial in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

In Philadelphia, Amtrak is rededicating the World War II Memorial that stands in its 30th Street Station on the Sunday morning and honoring the memory of the famous Four Chaplains. The Mayor of Philadelphia has been invited to lead the ceremony, which will include several prominent Second World War veterans and Philadelphia’s Favorite Son, Timmy Kelly.

A U.S. Marine reassures a family on Saipan in WWII. After the war was won, veterans came home and created one of America's greatest eras of prosperity. National Archives. Click to enlarge.
A U.S. Marine reassures a family on Saipan in WWII. After the war was won, veterans came home and created one of America's greatest eras of prosperity. National Archives. Click to enlarge.
State veterans homes across the country are honoring their World War II–era residents and open houses are being organized at hundreds of senior and assisted living communities, many of them supported by one of our national sponsors, Vitas Innovative Health Care has mobilized its staff in 19 states to help promote public awareness and participation in National Spirit of ’45 Day.

At the end of the day there will be a closing ceremony at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., featuring a group of buglers playing “Amazing Grace” and “Taps” in honor of the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives in the war and the millions of the Greatest Generation who have passed away since the end of the war. The ceremony will include the unveiling of a Wall of Honor comprised of the portrait photos of 1,945 World War II veterans that will trigger hundreds of wreath-laying ceremonies across the country to officially end the Day and launch the next 12 months of Spirit of ’45 activities.

HN: If someone hears about this campaign and thinks it’s a great idea, what should that person do to become involved or to bring the campaign to his or her community?

WCH: The first thing they should do is to visit the Spirit of ’45 Website to learn more about the campaign and what other communities did last year and if anyone in their community is already planning an event or activity this year.

There’s a free downloadable Event Planning Toolkit available on the site that is filled with information on how to organize and publicize an event. The size of the event or activity is not as important as simply doing something to honor the legacy of service of our Greatest Generation on their Greatest Day. It might be as simple as having a group of World War II seniors invited to a picnic in the local park, or organizing a wreath laying ceremony at a World War II memorial, on the steps of the city hall or at a local cemetery.

At the very least, we are recommending that people request a proclamation from their local mayor or city council supporting National Spirit of ’45 Day as a way of honoring the members of the World War II generation in their community. There is a sample proclamation available on the Website.

HN: The stated purpose of the Spirit of ’45 campaign is "to preserve the legacy of the men and women of the Greatest Generation so that their example of courage, self-sacrifice, ‘can-do’ attitude and commitment to community can help inspire a renewal of national unity in America." Can you give some examples of how you think preserving this legacy can lead to commitment to those ideals?

WCH: Just by having a national day set aside each year provides our country with an opportunity to explicitly think about what that generation had to contend with during their lifetimes and how their example of meeting adversity together helps put our own situation into perspective. “Courage, self-sacrifice, ‘can-do’ attitude, commitment to community”—these are timeless qualities that are not determined by one’s politics or other preferences, they’re about character. And the need for national unity at a time when our country is again confronted with historic challenges, has never been greater.

America's citizens fought to maintain hope during the Great Depression. This Library of Congress photo was taken on Howard Street, San Francisco's 'Skid Row,' February 1937. Click to enlarge.
America's citizens fought to maintain hope during the Great Depression. This Library of Congress photo was taken on Howard Street, San Francisco's 'Skid Row,' February 1937. Click to enlarge.
By reminding ourselves of a time when our country faced much more daunting threats than those we are dealing with today, Americans of all ages and backgrounds were able to come together and mobilize to assure the future, not only of our country, but of the world. We can hopefully “recharge our batteries” every year in August and dedicate ourselves to tackling the problems that confront our country with a renewed spirit that brings us together rather than letting these challenges divide us.

HN: You’ve said elsewhere that you believe there is a craving among the current generation to belong to something greater than their individual selves but no call to action has been made to them. If you were to give today’s young people a call to action, what would you ask them to do?

WCH: America’s “greatest generation” grew up with the deprivations of the Great Depression and were called upon to literally save the world, not only during the war but during the postwar recovery as well, when America helped both its friends and former enemies rebuild their countries in an unprecedented effort to assure a better future for their children and their children’s children.

Unlike the legacy of service and sacrifice left by the World War II generation, the “Me” generation seems to be leaving their children and their children’s children with a nation in decline, saddled with debt that constrains efforts to rebuild our national infrastructure, revitalize public education, and make meaningful improvements in our health care system. Our political leadership seems to be in a state of perpetual gridlock that discourages any effort to bring people together in common cause to deal with the very real problems that face our country.

The younger generation aren’t unaware of all this and what it means to their future. They are worried because they are the ones who will suffer the consequences.

Its important to remember that the young people of today probably have more power and access to information than any generation in history, thanks to the so-called digital communications revolution. And they have the time, energy and imagination to use this power and knowledge to help solve many of the problems their country is facing. But other than bland exhortations to do well in school or volunteer a few hours in service to their community, the youth of America are not being called on to help assure a better future for themselves and their country.

One of the goals of the Spirit of ’45 initiative is to engage young people by giving them an opportunity to have some direct contact with the members of their parent’s generation before they disappear, to hear their stories and to help them preserve their first hand memories of the past century. It is our hope that if youth have a chance to form a personal connection with these folks and learn more about what they achieved together during their lifetimes and the values that shaped their lives, they will be inspired to become the “ordinary heroes” of their generation to assure a better future for themselves and for their country.

HN: Thank you for taking time to talk with us. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?

WCH: I want to thank the World History Group for its support for the Spirit of ’45 national initiative, and you for taking the time to conduct this interview. It’s very important that as many people as possible are made aware of the importance of National Spirit of ’45 Day and are motivated to do what they can to assure that it is observed in their community every second Sunday in August, especially while there are still members of the World War II generation among us to participate, to be honored and to be assured that their legacy is never forgotten. Thank you for keeping their Spirit alive in America!

Edith Shain, the nurse in Albert Eisenstadt’s iconic Life magazine cover photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square when news arrived that the war was over, was a tireless activist for creating a day to honor the "ordinary heroes" of the generation that answered the call in America’s time of need. The iconic image has been incorporated into the Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive! logo. Edith Shain passed away on June 20, 2010.