DANIEL VAUGHAN: Ed Shames, Bob Dole, and remembering the Greatest Generation

America lost two of her great heroes from the World War II generation over the weekend.

Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole passed away at 98 years old. Edward Shames, the last surviving officer of the famed Easy Company, portrayed in the Band of Brothers mini-series, passed away at 99 years old. Both were veterans of the last global war and embodied the very best America has ever produced.

Dole was a second lieutenant in the infantry, serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which included skiing soldiers who worked the Italian front.

In 1945, his unit “took part in a spring offensive in Italy, during which his platoon was assigned to take a hill that lay across a mine-laden field covered by enemy snipers. In an exchange of fire, he was hit in his right shoulder by exploding shrapnel,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Two medics lost their lives trying to save Dole before he finally got to safety. After that, his unit “assumed he wouldn’t survive his wounds — and he nearly didn’t. Eventually he was sent back to the U.S. in a full body cast and spent 39 months in recovery. He had lost all mobility in his right arm and hand, and simply getting dressed in the morning would be a challenge for the rest of his life.”

Dole turned that military career into a political one, representing Kansas and working his way up to Senate leader for Republicans in the 1990s, before leaving the Senate to challenge Bill Clinton in 1996. Dole’s farewell speech to Congress in 1996 is the stuff of legend, and C-SPAN was replaying it for everyone when the news of his passing was announced.

As the Military Times noted, Edward “Ed” Shames was the last surviving officer of the famed Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

“He made his first combat jump into Normandy on D-Day as part of Operation Overlord. He volunteered for Operation Pegasus and then fought with Easy Company in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne,” Military Times reports. “Shames was the first member of the 101st to enter Dachau concentration camp, just days after its liberation.”

Shames’ obituary listed a funny story regarding his time in Europe: “When Germany surrendered, Ed and his men of Easy Company entered Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest where Ed managed to acquire a few bottles of cognac, a label indicating they were ‘for the Fuhrer’s use only.’ Later, he would use the cognac to toast his oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah.”

Stephen E. Ambrose famously described the exploits of Ed Shames and Easy Company in the book Band of Brothers. HBO immediately turned that into the incredible mini-series, which details the exploits of those men, led by the incomparable Dick Winters, and many others.

Dole and Shames were part of the generation that Tom Brokaw nicknamed the “Greatest Generation” in 1998; others have also called them the G.I. Generation, playing off nationwide service in the war effort. They grew up through the Great Depression and fought World War II, which ended with the start of the nuclear age.

Dole’s presidential run in 1996 was the last time that generation was on the top of the ticket for American politics. Clinton’s victory over George H. W. Bush was a similar marker where that generation started leaving the political scene.

Though they were leaving office, they continued to live and advise those taking up the mantle of American leadership.

We’re now at the point where America is losing the last members living from the Greatest Generation. And with them, their experience and wisdom.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there was a concerted effort to capture as much information and stories from this group of people as possible. Dole led the effort to create the memorial for veterans of the Second World War. He also helped push fundraising efforts for the Honor Flight group, which flies veterans to Washington D.C. to see the memorials to the wars in which they served.

But now, America is heading into waters without this generation available to talk to and get advice. Prior generations have experienced a similar phenomenon.

The nation was well aware when it lost the last of the Founding Generation, referring to and venerating the era that brought this country forward. The generation that fought the Civil War was from a similar cloth. This generation is losing the group that brought the United States victory and made it a global superpower able to challenge the USSR.

I don’t know what the future holds for the United States for the rest of the century. We’ve always been blessed to have heroes rise when the occasion demands it. Hopefully, we do so again with the Greatest Generation leaving the stage. May we hold their memories and experience close for the rest of time.

If you’d like to help honor this generation while we still have it, consider donating to the Honor Flight organization. They’re trying to ensure every surviving veteran of World War II gets a chance to see the memorial in their name.

Veterans of other wars are helped too, but the priority is the aging generation who are passing quickly. Donate by visiting their website here.