A tale from the “Greatest Generation”

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jeremy L. Mosier
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Many people remember what they were doing or at least remember where they were when they heard the news of historic events: the attacks of 9/11, finding Osama Bin Laden, the Oklahoma City Bombing and the Boston Bombing.

However, another memory is slowly fading along with the generation that reacted to it, a memory that galvanized a country to make the ultimate stand against an ultimate evil.

“I was working as a graduate … when Pearl Harbor happened,” said Anne Rissman. “How do those people have the nerve to do such a terrible thing? Look at all the people that [were] killed and so on.”

Anne, now 96 years-old, graduated high school in New Jersey at the age of 16 and began her pursuit of becoming a nurse.

She completed a three-year course and moved on to work at St. Luke’s Hospital in uptown Manhattan near Columbia University.

“Very soon after that we heard at the hospital that group in Washington D.C. … wanted us to form a hospital,” Anne said. “I said ‘I wanna go’ and it ended up that we were sent off in late January.”

Anne was loaded up on the ship Queen Mary along with thousands of other soldiers who began the five-day crossing to England. At 1,000-feet long and a max speed of 29 knots the ship transported nearly 15,000 troops in 1945 alone.

While on the long journey across the Atlantic, Anne spoke of meeting various people from her time on the ship, from enlisted members to officers, they were all on their way to defend their country. One of the people she encountered was a bomber pilot she became friends with and would serve alongside again downrange.

As they neared England they began zig-zagging just fast enough to make it difficult for torpedoes to lock on them. The threat from enemy submarines prompted passengers and crew to go to great lengths to avoid detection, even banning cigarette use at a time when more than 40 percent of the U.S. population smoked.

“It was all in darkness, no cigarettes, nothing … that sort of thing can be seen a long way off,” Anne said.

They arrived in Europe, traveling through Glasgow, Scotland, and Belfast, Ireland, before traveling to London to support the 8th Air Force.

“Now, that was a lot of big planes,” Anne said. “We were very proud to be working with them.”

She talked about seeing the “big bombers” of the U.S. taking off in formation during the day and hearing the British bombers taking off all through the night.

“When they started taking off at night, I could just feel it, like this shaking. It shook the earth, and some came back and some didn’t,” she said.

The bombers continued their flying operations for some time. One day, Anne heard of one that didn’t make it back, piloted by the friend she made on the Queen Mary.

“He was shot down,” she explained with a tear in her eye.

Her unit continued moving throughout Europe until they made it to Belgium. As they were settling into Belgium, the Germans began their attack.

Anne’s duty while working at the 750-bed tent hospital was giving anesthesia to the patients that came in. At that time one of the main and easiest drugs they were using was ether to calm the patient down.

“We had everybody when they came in, there was a board under their arm out here, and one side or the other was a place for a syringe and we had ‘em count backwards from something or other and go to sleep,” she said to describe her everyday duty.

She and the others at the 2nd Evacuation Hospital were working alternating 12-hour shifts everyday to try and keep up with the overflow of patients.

After several months, the Germans had inched closer and closer until the firing of the “big guns” by friendly forces were an around-the-clock ordeal to try and push them back.

“They were going off all around our hospital, so you’d work 12 hours, try to go to bed and sleep — not much help,” she said.

This continued until around Christmas time, when the Germans began flying bombers to hit countries all around the hospital. The hospital was on top of a hill and occasionally she would see them fly right past. Anne explained that when they flew by she just prayed they didn’t hit the hospital.

The nervousness continued until the 8th Air Force broke through enemy lines into Germany. With Anne and the hospital following to assist with the injured, the U.S. Forces began to overwhelm the Germans.

“The whole thing changed, and it was getting closer and closer to the end,” the 96-year old woman exclaimed. “I think the feeling was pretty much 'thank God that's over.' You know, it tires you out!”

Despite the fatigue, being a nurse is what kept her going. Helping the injured and getting them healthy enough to make it back to their loved ones or to continue fighting, she assisted with hundreds of soldiers.

Of the soldiers she cared for, she explained that the ones who came in with head injuries were the saddest. No matter the number of injured seen by Anne she cared for all of them with all she had, even thinking about it now she gets emotional.

“As soon as I say it, the tears start coming,” she said as she wiped her eyes. “So there you are, someone who still has feelings about it, and I guess there aren't so many of us left.”

She wasn’t the only one who was proud to serve her country, she explained that it was everyone in the country who stood by one another to fight and come out victorious.

“That's what I don't think people can understand now,” she said. “Everybody was involved with it. It just happened. We wanted to get it done, get in it, help with it, we were gonna get in there and work on it.”

After the war ended Anne was presented with an opportunity that no veteran had been presented with in years before. This generation of veterans were given the chance to go to school for free by using the GI Bill, a privilege they earned by serving their country.

Little did she know after only a few years in to school at the University of Michigan she would meet her life-long partner, Jim Rissman.

Jim had served during WWII. Instead of going overseas, he was sent to “radio school,” where he was educated on a new technology that allowed airfields to track airplanes, and airplanes to detect obstacles. But, after serving he too began pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Michigan.

“We met the beginning of our sophomore year, and we got married the end of our sophomore year, and both of us kept working until we graduated together, and I was pregnant,” Anne said with a smile.

The GI Bill was a way for these two to meet and spend the rest of their lives together, but for her daughter, Annie Humke, it had a more significant role.

“If it wasn’t for them and that little wonderful gift called the GI Bill, I don’t know if I would be here,” Annie laughed.

Tom Brokaw characterized the Americans who fought in WWII, at home or abroad, as the ‘greatest generation,’ in a book he published, for their ability to come together and do what their country needed. However, Anne doesn’t see it that way.

“Well that was one man's statement to start with,” she said. “It’s a fancy name. Anybody faced with exactly what we were faced with, I think would have reacted the same way, because they’re human beings.”

Anne may be humble about receiving the label as the ‘greatest generation,’ but her daughter believes that her parents have earned that title.

“I would say what makes them the greatest generation is that as a whole they were not quitters,” Annie said. “They knew about moral duty; they knew about community duty; they knew about service.”

For those who fought in WWII, the ‘greatest generation’ is just a “fancy name,” but for those who look up to these individuals it is well earned. Lawmakers have even marked the anniversary of the war’s end as “Spirit of ’45 Day,” and hold ceremonies “celebrating the greatest generation on their greatest day.”

“The pride of a nation rests in the souls of those WWII veterans,” said retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Phil Hawkins during one such event.

A pride that continues to this day.