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Editorial: A great generation

Those who served our nation during World War II have become known as the “greatest generation,” thanks to Tom Brokaw’s book about them.

They were men and women who were born in the early part of the 20th century, whose lives were shaped by the Great Depression and the war — and who came home to mold a post-war America that reached new heights, economically, socially and militarily.

We’re now in the second decade of the 21st century and “greatest generation” is shrinking as the men and women of that period are now well into their 80s and 90s. It also means that there are fewer chances to not only learn more about this generation and what they went through, but also to express gratitude for what they did.

This week at Orange Municipal Airport, the community has a chance to do just that through the Collings Foundation’s “Wings of Freedom Tour,” a living history event that revolves around U.S. military aircraft from World War II. As the foundation says, the tour “has two goals: to honor the sacrifices made by our veterans that allow us to enjoy our freedom; and to educate the visitors, especially younger Americans, about our national history and heritage.”

But there’s more to the tour this year, something that makes it even more special.

Vincent J. “Bill” Purple, now 89, served as a B-17 pilot during the war, flying 35 missions, many as the lead in the formation, in bombing runs in Europe. Like many of his generation, there’s a modesty about his time serving in the war for his country. It’s a humility that seemed to characterize many of the men and women who served during the war.

That doesn’t mean, however, they don’t deserve recognition for their sacrifices. And in Purple’s case, it’s not just people of the area who may think this way, but the nation of France as well.

Some 70 years after the war, Purple will be honored for his part in the war by being awarded the medal of the Legion of Honour. The Légion d’Honneur is an organization that was created by Napoleon Bonaparte, and being admitted to it is France’s highest honor. It is reserved for French citizens. But foreigners can be awarded the medal of the Legion.

“He will be recognized for when he bravely led squadrons of bombers containing hundreds of men over France at the young age of 20,” said his daughter, Cindy Hartwell.

One could say it’s long deserved. It’s fitting, however, that Friday’s ceremony (11 a.m. at the airport) comes in Purple’s lifetime as well as ours.

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