The Greatest Generation. It’s a phrase that’s often used to label the men and women who fought in World War II, either at home or abroad.

That phrase might mean something different to different people, but to Kokomo residents Gene Sweeney, Ed Krull, Fred Pizarek, Cye Zwirn, Jim Krajewski and Milt Brown, the Greatest Generation is about unconditional sacrifice.

And they should know, as the six are just a few of the county’s WWII veterans that meet at Primrose Retirement Community of Kokomo the first and third Fridays of each month.

The meetings are often informal, with topics ranging from the weather to entertainment and everything in between.

Retired educator and Indiana University Kokomo staff member Ed Stipp organizes the get-togethers, and he said the group of veterans have been meeting at Primrose for about the last two years.

“It’s all really just an honor and privilege to sit down with these guys and just rub shoulders with them,” Stipp said, noting that he hosts similar groups at North Woods Commons and Jefferson Manor. “I’ve learned more about WWII just being around these guys, and they remember every detail about their service. … If younger people would just naturally sit down and interact with these gentlemen, they’d learn so much. There was a call, and these men answered it.”

And though most of the men that meet at Primrose didn’t necessarily participate in physical combat during their years of service, all of them said they felt a duty to their country, and they wanted to fill it.

“I grew up on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota,” Krull, a vehicles clerk in the U.S. Army, said. “I had just graduated high school and was 17 when I enlisted. I knew the opportunity of the GI bill was in my sight, and so I remember taking a train out to California for basic training. … That was the first time I had ever been out of the state of Minnesota. But just having that military experience and meeting with other guys my age from all over the United States, it was a rewarding and good experience.”

Like Krull, Sweeney was also 17 when he entered the U.S. Navy in 1943. Because he was in college at the time, Sweeney was deferred for six months and enrolled in the Navy Air Cadet program.

“They were waning down the war in the Pacific and didn’t need as many pilots when I got in,” Sweeney said. "But I did become a flight instructor. That was a wonderful experience, and that program gave me tremendous character. … Not everyone got wings and commission, and the overall education I was provided as a cadet made me very thankful.”

But wartime also comes with its challenges. And even though the six weren’t particularly on the front lines, they were still close enough to understand the consequences.

“I had a couple friends that landed at Normandy Beach and both were killed there,” Sweeney said. “That was a big event when we landed at Normandy, and I’ll never forget the news and reports that came from that. That’s what war is, and that’s why they call it hell.”

Zwirn agreed with Sweeney, saying that the era surrounding WWII is often foreign to society today, mainly because of the nationwide support for the war efforts.

“To me, the Greatest Generation was men and women stepping up to an area of responsibility that they just knew they had to participate in,” he said. “The war in Europe was spreading. … And people at home, they also participated. It was unconditional surrender on both sides. It was just a whole attitude of engagement.

“So to me, those years were about attitude. Nobody felt like anyone owed them anything. I never got into a combat zone, so I’m very grateful that things worked out for me. But unfortunately, there’s a lot of ones that never came back.”

Military life also taught the men life lessons that transcended far beyond their days of service.

“It taught me a lot about what responsibility meant,” Brown said, referring to his days as a signalman in the U.S. Navy. “I was only 17 at the time, just a kid. So through my time in the military, I learned what it meant to be an adult very quickly.”

Krajewski echoed Brown’s sentiments.

“We were just all brothers back then,” he said. “And regardless of where we came from or how we were brought up, we were all there for the same reason.”

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