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America Through the Eyes of a WWII Veteran

America Daily with Jessica Beatty

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The Greatest Generation describes Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. They went on to build modern America. Today we hear from one of these great Americans. He shares his memories of World War II, how society has changed, and some advice for young people starting out today.

Today’s Guest:

  • World War II veteran and retired teacher John Downs. He turns 94 this year.

Growing Up During the Great Depression

John Downs grew up in Minnesota during the 1930s.

John Downs: I grew up in Proctor, which is a suburb of Duluth, Minnesota, a railroad town. There was 40 percent unemployment in my hometown at that time, and yet crime was negligible. It was a great place to grow up. Of course, if there were any jobs available for anyone, the unemployed got them. So us kids did nothing but play.

I grew up in the best time in our country’s history. Maybe you didn’t have the material things, but it was before television. We had radio and, like I said, when nine o’clock came and we were out playing and that whistle blew at nine o’clock, we all ran home because Tarzan was on then, and we wanted to listen to Tarzan. We were outside all the time in the process of growing up. — John Downs

London Bombed WWII -- America Daily
London During World War II.

Life During World War II

Mr. Downs joined the Army when he turned 18. He was in a special training program for people who would eventually go to college and become engineers. He completed one quarter at Stanford University before the program was shut down. They were transferred to the 71st Division. In January of 1945, they were sent to Europe.

Did your parents give you any good advice when you left home?

John Downs: No, not really. They didn’t really have any experience. I had one neighbor who had been in World War I, and he said to keep an extra pair of socks and keep it next to your chest so that it’s always dry so that, if your socks get wet, you’ve got something dry to put on. And that was good advice.

I think that we probably had the most intelligent division in the history of the United States Army. Some of the guys had AGC’s [Army General Classification Test] of a 156 or even above that, and that will put them with an IQ of about 145 or more. — John Downs

Were you scared or nervous at all when you went over?

John Downs: Didn’t have time to think about it. No. Another fellow and I had gotten a little bit bored with camp life, and we were thinking about volunteering for overseas duty. And about then my dad had a heart attack, and I went home. But Chuck went through with his volunteering. He went overseas and was killed in Normandy. It could have been me, but my dad’s illness kind of made it possible for me to miss it.

German Prisoners of War 1944 -- America Daily
German prisoners of war captured with the fall of Aachen in 1944.

The End of the War

Where were you and how did it feel when you first found out the war was over?

John Downs: We were in Austria. Our division was the furthest east of any Ally division. We ended up … I think we were probably about 30 or 40 kilometers east of Berlin, down in Austria. And our division recon platoon was operating ahead of the division, and they came upon Army Group B, the Germans fighting the Russians.

And they [the Germans] surrendered 400,000 troops to our recon platoon of about 35 guys. I don’t know what ever happened to those fellows. They were on a flood plane, and we were off on a higher elevation overlooking them. There was just one mass of humanity down there. — John Downs

Changes in America

Mr. Downs has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, and the Cold War. I wanted to hear his take on American society today.

Many of the 2020 Democratic front-runners are supporting socialist policies that wouldn’t have been popular even ten years ago. I wanted to ask, what do you think of socialism, and do you think it’s the future for our country?

John Downs: I think it’s a disaster. Socialism–it hasn’t worked any place in the world. So why should it work in the United States? Our Constitution is set up and encourages individuals to develop to their fullest; whereas, with socialism, it’s more or less being content to be average.

Have you noticed changes in politics since you were younger?

John Downs: In the last ten years or so, there’s been a tremendous change in politics. It used to be that the power that lost…once I started to vote, well the losing party always realized they’d lost, and they tried to work out agreements with the winning party to minimize the direction the government was taking, which was different from what they would if they were in power. But now it’s a case of this: either you’re one way or the other way. There’s no in between.

Hopes for the Future

Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t ask about?

John Downs: I just hope that we could get back to the morality that we had in the country when I was growing up. When I was growing, of course there weren’t very many cars. A minister kid’s friend of mine had access to a car. And so when we’d go out on dates, we’d have four couples in the car. Four people in the front seat, and four people in the back seat. Maybe it’s two in the front seat and six in the back seat. But it was fun. And that’s not conducive to immorality.

Press play to listen. The Founding Fathers believed a virtuous citizenry was the key to maintaining the republic. It seems like that belief was alive and well for the Greatest Generation too. Do you think public virtue is still important today? Please let us know in the comments below.

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