Dateline:August 4, 2021

Robert Sherrod on The Greatest Generation

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Robert Sherrod was a war correspondent for Time and Life Magazines from World War 2 on through Vietnam. The above picture links to his story.
"Americans don’t realize it, but we are losing the war. I know we have the machines to fight this war but the question is, do we have the guts? This generation isn’t mentally prepared to bridge the gap between the comforts of peace and the horrors of war." Often attributed to Robert Sherrod.

The above meme, sometimes expanded into further supporting paragraphs, is making the rounds on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Medium, the usual suspects, introducing a comparison of America's Millennial generation (1981-1996) to Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation (1901-1927).

It argues that lambasting the Millennials is unjustified because the World War II generation was also derided in its day. We are meant to feel something, chagrin, repentance, or perhaps justification, depending our preconceptions, but do these earnest invocatons of history's mercurial patterns draw us to the right conclusion?

Newspapers heard regularly from Robert Sherrod in 1942, but no discouraging word was found.
You should own a copy of Robert Sherrod's "Tarawa," but you can skim the text here (beware a few typos).

Let's not even bother with the comparison of some allegedly maligned group of modern Americans to the winners of World War II. When the comparison is warranted no one will need convincing. Let's address two other aspects of the argument: its premise and its reasoning.

The reasoning that compares The Greatest Generation to The Millennials seems to go like this, "The Greatest Generation was maligned before they won the war, so maybe the Millennials will do something just as great." But singling out The Greatest Generation to drive home this point is misleading. It's like arguing that the winners of the 1968 pennant got lots of bad press, and the Team-of-your-choice are also criticised, so maybe they will win the pennant. In fact, as some of the meme-renderings point out, finding fault with the younger generation is a universal social trait.

When a seasoned cohort of humans comments on their successors-in-making, they are normally appalled. Look at any senior class and its expectations for the current freshmen. Go to any era and review the innermost concerns of its old timers. With few exceptions, and in the main, they will lament the frivolity, unreadiness, unsteadiness, and general unsuitability burdening the young.

Robert Lewis Gipson billed himself as the oldest man in the United States in 1884. He probably wasn't, but he was pretty old, over 100 years old, certainly, and what was his main concern? Youngsters lacked fortitude and wisdom.

During the depression the WPA conducted interviews with former slaves. Their common grievance? Youngsters of the day lacked the traits required for success. Plato referred to his student, Aristotle, as the foal, apparently calling out his lack of respect.

We're discussing a truism so pedestrian no one needs convincing. Can we doubt major concern among the elders of the Clovis People about their youngsters' mastery of those magnificent fluted points invented by the ancestors?

Oh well, let's pretend the Greatest Generation being called out by their elders is sufficient reason to think the Millennials, or your newbies of choice, are destined to rise to their own occasion. What about the premise? Did war correspondent Robert Sherrod actually make that unflattering statement about the generation inheriting the Pacific War? It's fair to wonder.

None of the meme-centric repetitions of Sherrod's alleged statement is graced with a citation. One writer footnotes his soliloquy on the misunderstood Millennials, but when we jump to his source for the Sherrod quote we find the following remarkable statement.

"This quote is infuriatingly elusive to me, by the by. It was used as part of Rob Lowe’s voiceover in WWII in HD with no attributions. Sherrod was one of the more important correspondents of World War II but never rose to the level of an Ernie Pyle, Andy Rooney, or Edward R Murrow so his stuff probably just never made it onto the internet. Last time I saw WWII in HD I scribbled the quote down because it seemed like something that would be useful in, well, a piece exactly like the one I’m writing. That’s pretty much the only reason I have it."
In December 1943, Robert Sherrod offered the first version of his "Losing the War" meme (Click to read, 4th column).

Oh dear. He copied it from a TV show. It's a good quote from which to spring an argument, but who knows where it came from, if it's real, or if it comes from a context supportive of the author's argument. Have faith.

A minimal amount of research gets us close to the truth. The specific quote being attributed to war correspondent Sherrod does not appear to originate, verbatim, with him. But, he did say something similar, and that, with some word-of-mouth editing and more contemporary phrasing, has probably inspired the Millennial meme.

Robert Sherrod praised the Marines in dispatches after the battle of Tarawa(click to read 8 Dec 1943 comments).

Robert Sherrod, 1909-1994, was a war correspondent for Time and Life Magazines from World War 2 right on through Vietnam. Sherrod's World War 2 began with a trip to Australia in 1942. He reported from there and then moved on to the Aleutians before following the island hopping assault toward Japan. Most notably, Sherrod was embedded with the Marines when they took the island of Tarawa in November of 1943, after 76 hours of battle at a cost of 6000 lives. In a dispatch on December 8, 1943, he wrote, "The U. S. Marines, living and dead, had proved they could take it as superbly as any fighting men had ever taken it." By "it" he meant "battle." He wrote a book on the invasion that was rushed into print, and he spent a few weeks stateside promoting it.

The book was written quickly from his wartime notes. In December 1943, prior to its publication, a dispatch appeared in newspapers around the country from which we extract the following (read the entire news article at left).

Sherrod's Tarawa is available second hand, or as an eBook (click to sample).

"Home again after landing with the Marines on Tarawa in the bloodiest battle U. S. soldiers ever fought, Time Correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote an office memo:

"When I came back from Australia in August, 1942, everybody said I was crazy, and perhaps I was. I went around Cassandra-fashion, crying: 'We are losing the war-you don't realize it, but we are losing the war.'

"I knew we could make the machines of war. But I didn't know whether we had the heart to fight a war. Our men didn't want to fight. Their generation had been told in its teens and at the voting age that it was not necessary to fight, that peace was the most important thing in the world. Our men just wanted to go home."

The dispatch goes on to describe the fighting spirit after Australia, and how it transformed into the resolve of the Pacific War after 1943.


That is the earliest publication of something like the current meme. The words have been adjusted, as happens when phrases go from ear to pen to mouth to pen and so forth. But you can recognize the germ of the thing.

When Sherrod's book on the Tarawa battle was published it made a great sensation. He convinced his publishers to stop sugar coating the news fed to the public. The censors seem to have seen the wisdom of his convictions. His book contains the following passage, obviously a version of his 1943 memo.

When I came back to the United States after half a year in Australia, in August, 1942, I went around Cassandra-fashion, crying, “We are losing the war— you don’t realize it, but we are losing the war” I talked to several men at the top of the Army and Navy. I went to the White House and sang my mournful tune to the President. To bear bad tidings is a very rocky road to popularity, but I felt that somebody had to do it.

What worried me was not our productive ability, although it was barely in evidence at the time. I knew we could make the machines of war. But I didn’t know whether we had the heart to fight a war. Our men who had to do the fighting didn’t want to fight. Their generation had been told in the all-important first ten years, in its teens, and at the voting age that it was not necessary to fight. Sometimes it almost seemed that they had been taught that peace was more important than honor. Our men just wanted to go home.

I could not forget my conversation one chilly August day in a room in Lennon’s Hotel in Brisbane. My companion was an Army general, a friend of many years. I asked his opinion of the American soldier. He became very depressed. He said, “I’m afraid. Bob. I’m afraid the Americans of this generation are not the same kind of Americans who fought the last war."

Robert Sherrod...Tarawa, The Story of a Battle, 1944.


Not everyone favored Sherrod's point of view in 1944. Click to read a critical review of his book in 1944.

These three paragraphs are probably the source of the modern charge that Sherrod lacked faith in the greatest generation. The social media meme is an obvious paraphrasing of these paragraphs, with a few word changes (eg. "guts," for "heart") for a grittier, more war-like feel. It's a reasonably honest paraphrasing, capturing the sense of the source quote, with two important caveats.

First, Sherrod is not on record as having said any such thing about American soldiers at the time he says he said them. He is writing after the fact, after his mind has been changed by battle. He claims, in late 1943, he'd been warning about the sad state of things back in 1942. Did he really say, in 1942, America was losing the war? We find no record of it, but Mr. Sherrod practiced an estimable brand of honesty throughout his life, so it's probably true. In any case, in 1942, hoards of people were saying we were losing the war. Mr. Sherrod would have been part of a loud chorus.

We know Sherrod was part of that 1942 preparedness chorus. We don't find him using the phrase, "losing this war," but we do find his name lent to urgent conservation efforts, and exhortations to support war production (see nearby clipping). Australia is where, according to Sherrod's 1944 book, he gained his distress at American fighting men's prowess, but on 27 March, 1942, he filed a dispatch from Australia praising the crew on the ship that took him there. You'll also find, from June of 1942, Mr. Sherrod praising American pilots for bravery and skill, while urging America's airplane builders to make better machines.

In the Vietnam era editors remembered Sherrod's criticisms from World War 2, but still missed his point about educating the young.

If Robert Sherrod was playing Cassandra in 1942, telling people we were losing the war, he was part of an esteemed group of alarmists. Many practitioners of American opinion mongering were saying the same thing. The Atlanta Constitution ran such an editorial on 11 February 1942, as Pearl Harbor salvage and damage assessments proceeded. The president of Brown University gave the same warning on 29 August 1942. Another paper warned on 10 August that too much partisan politics was losing the war. On 25 September 1942 several newspapers reprinted a plea from the Columbia Missouri Daily Tribute asking president Roosevelt to stop losing the war. On 12 October, 1942, it was reported that Assistant Secretary of Navy Ralph E. Bard used the "losing the war" phrase to shake off public complacency.


Was it true? Was America losing the war in 1942? There was a lot of bad news: Bataan and the fall of the Philippines, plus huge gains by both Japan and Germany. Nevertheless, arguably, 1942 was the year America won the war, or at least laid the necessary and sufficient foundation for winning.

The United Nations was formed in January, and the Red Army began its offensive against Germany. In June the Pacific battles of Coral Sea and Midway ended with the Japanese Navy incapable of sustaining further aggressive actions due to attrition of experienced pilots and materiel. In August America's lethal B-17 bombers entered the war. In September General Leslie Groves took over the Manhattan Project.

Sherrod interviewed General George C. Marshall in 1964 about America's pre-war strategy.

One other thing happened in 1942 that helped turn the tide. A chorus of naysayers began urging the American people into a wartime frame of mind by warning that the war could be, perhaps was being, lost. "We're losing the war," was an important part of winning the war, and we should probably accept Mr. Sherrod's claim that he was, off the record, part of it.

There is another, important point to make about the difference between social media memes and historical reality. Memes make a simple point, reality is more complex, usually more interesting, and often more instructive.

The Robert-Sherrod-slandered-the-Greatest-Generation-so-let's-not-slander-Millennials meme makes a simple enough point, obviously useful, but hardly newsworthy. Every generation of youngsters has drawn fire from its elders for being insufficiently respectful, or thoughtful, or industrious, or something, and every generation, so far, has forged its own way, some better some worse.

The urge to belittle the upcoming generation is easy to understand. Each generation makes its own decisions about important (today we more glibly say, existential) matters: freedom, religion, industry, and so forth. The elders become understandably attentive when it dawns on them that the world is moving out of their control. Is this tired old point what Robert Sherrod was on about in his concerns about America's young soldiers?

Not really. Robert Sherrod's criticism was not aimed at the Greatest Generation at all. He was taking their elders to task. He faulted them for doing such an abysmal job of educating and preparing the young men and women called on to fight World War 2.

If we read on a few more paragraphs past the meme-inspiring quote, we come to this passage about the education America's fighting men got at the battle of Atu in the Aleutian Islands.

This was the hard way of gaining an education, but, since we in America had made such an abominable job of educating a generation, we had no other method during the first two years of war. Therefore, our soldiers showed up poorly in their first battles. The number of “war neuroses” or “shell-shock” cases among them simply reflected the fact, in my opinion, that they were not mentally prepared to bridge the vast gap between the comforts of peace and the horrors of war. In other words, they had been brought up to believe that it was only necessary to wish for peace to have peace, and the best way to avoid war was to turn our heads the other way when war was mentioned. I had no words to describe the effect the first bombs and bullets had on many of the men educated in such fashion. Fortunately, most of them recovered their equilibrium after the initial shock. Fortunately, there were signs after two years of war that the oncoming generation of soldiers— those who had been conscious for two years of the nearness of war to them— would go into battle better prepared, better educated.

I thought Attu could be told in the story of the sergeant. On top of one of those snowy, marrow-chilling peaks in May, 1943, the platoon leader, a second lieutenant, ordered the sergeant to take a squad and go over there and knock out that Jap machine-gun nest. The sergeant just stared. His mouth was open. He was horrified. He had been in the Army two years; now, all of a sudden, he was told to go out and risk his life. He, like most Americans, had never thought of the war in terms of getting killed. In disgust, the second lieutenant said, “All right, sergeant, you just sit here. If any of you bastards,” turning to the rest of his men, “have got the guts, follow me. We’ve got to get that machine gun. A lot of our men are getting killed by that machine gun.” Well, about ten men followed the second lieutenant. They killed the Japs and the machine gun didn’t kill any more Americans. That afternoon the sergeant went to the second lieutenant and said, “Sir, I am ashamed of myself. Give me another chance.” By then there was another machine gun to be knocked out. So, the second lieutenant ordered the sergeant to take a squad and knock it out. The sergeant did just that. In fact, he knocked it out personally. The necessity of risking his life had finally been demonstrated to him.

Robert Sherrod...Tarawa, The Story of a Battle, 1944.

Robert Sherrod was not, early on in the war, blaming America's youth for their failures of spirit. He was pointing to his peers, wagging a finger at them, for failing to teach their children a simple lesson about freedom: it's not free.


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This Iconic view of Robert Lee Sherrod links to his 1967 Life Magazine article on Vietnam...framing his career as war correspondent.
Ray E. Boomhower has written the definitive biography of Robert Sherrod. The left image links to a source for buying the book, and the right image links to Boomhower's blog entry about Sherrod.


Robert Lee Sherrod, 86, former editor of the Saturday Evening Post and a World War II correspondent who went on to write books about the military and aerospace, died of emphysema Feb. 13 1994, at his home in Washington. He had lived in Washington off and on for about 60 years.

He was editor of the Saturday Evening Post, once one of America's most widely read publications, in the early 1960s. He wrote for Life magazine after leaving Curtis Publishing Co. in 1966.

Mr. Sherrod was a native of Thomasville, Ga., and a graduate of the University of Georgia. Early in his career, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, the Palm Beach Daily News and other newspapers. In 1929, he joined the staff of Time magazine.

As a correspondent during World War II, he chronicled the island-hopping of the U.S. Marine Corps across the Central Pacific in a series of bloody amphibious invasions. He went ashore with the first wave of Marines to land on Tarawa Atoll in 1943 and stayed until the last Japanese defender was killed or captured. He also reported from Saipan and Iwo Jima.

Mr. Sherrod worked for Time and Life until 1952, when he went to Tokyo to become Far Eastern correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. He was named managing editor two years later and became editor in chief in 1962.

Or you could read a review of Boomhower's book, at the above link.

Books he wrote or helped to write included five on the military -- among them "Tarawa: The Story of a Battle," "On to Westward: The Battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima" and "History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II" -- and the aerospace work "Apollo Expeditions to the Moon." He also wrote book reviews for The Washington Post and the New York Times's other publications.

Mr. Sherrod received honors from the Headliners Club, the University of Illinois and the Overseas Press Club.

He was a member of the history advisory committee of the Marine Corps, the president's advisory council of the University of Georgia, the Federal City Club, the National Press Club and the Overseas Press Club.

His first wife, Elizabeth Hudson Sherrod, died in 1958. His marriage to Margaret Carson Sherrod ended in divorce, and his third wife, Mary Gay Labrot Leonhardt Sherrod, died in 1972.

Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, John H. Sherrod of Sewickley, Pa., and Robert L. Sherrod Jr. of Maysville, Ga.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

After World War 2, Sherrod continued in journalism through the Korean and Vietnam wars. His views on Korea were mostly recorded in the Saturday Evening Post, for which he was correspondent, managing editor, and later editor in chief. You can read his postings in that magazine by subscription. By Vietnam he was back with Life magazine, and his thoughts on that conflict can be found in various newspapers.

On Vietnam Mr. Sherrod, a cold warrior of long standing credential, held very conventional views. He stood behind the original intervention, wavered as the thing went south, and became nonplussed as politics and ground-truth intervened. By 1967 he was advocating withdrawal as being superior to an eventual victory, and believed President Johnson would start edging toward the exit as the 1968 election approached. Many people adopted that belief as the conventional wisdom, but Johnson was a step ahead of them.

Hear Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" read by Argos MacCallum, poet, actor, director, and all-around stage hand with many theatre companies in Santa Fe; co-founder of Teatro Paragua.

Ode to the West Wind

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!


Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?