Mount Airy, and to a larger extent the nation, lost a true hero over the weekend with the death of 97-year-old William F. “Bud” Liebenow, who died Saturday from pneumonia.
Liebenow was part of what author and television newsman Tom Brokaw once labeled The Greatest Generation. While we’re not sure that’s true — the founding fathers were of a generation unmatched in all of human history, we believe — Liebenow’s generation was among the most influential in world history, certainly in United States history.
Take a few seconds to set your mind to that time period. There was no internet, not even an early forerunner of the internet. No computers. No television. Across America there were still quite a few homes without indoor plumbing, or even electricity. Half of America probably still believed there were advanced beings on Mars, ready to invade the earth at any time.
Nazi Germany was a power like none seen before. Having been a third-rate nation just a few years earlier, with most of its people in poverty, German had risen and gained such might the nation swept across Europe, wiping out what had been considered superior armies with ease. Had it been able to cross the English Channel and invade England, Germany would have moved on with Hitler’s plan to control the world, crossing the Atlantic and taking the war to American soil.
The Japanese, while not necessarily looking for world domination, definitely wanted unfettered access to China and the South Pacific, taking resources from those lands to fuel its growth and enslaving the people in those nations for its own evil purposes.
It was a dark time in the world, with very real fears of true evil controlling the globe. For all intents and purposes, America stood largely alone as the one hope against this dark onslaught.
Liebenow was among the best of that generation, helping to lead, in his own quiet way, America’s involvement in World War II, helping to shape the future of the planet.
After Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, Liebenow was one of millions of American men who answered the call of duty, giving up the next four years of their lives to fight the Japanese and the Germans around the world.
Liebenow was a PT boat captain, and is well-known as piloting the PT boat which rescued John F. Kennedy and much of his PT boat crew after that craft was destroyed — 17 years before Kennedy would win the White House.
Later, Liebenow captained a PT boat that made a number of successful, critical secret runs to Normandy, in advance of the D-Day invasion. Those often entailed running under cover of night by German ships and mine fields, then taking a rowboat the final part of the trip to deliver agents, or messages to agents already behind enemy limes.
During the D-Day invasion, he helped escort a number of rocket ships within firing range of German fortifications, then his boat rescued around five dozen men who had been dumped into the cold, choppy waters of The Channel when the USS Corry was destroyed and its crew abandoned ship.
Liebenow was a smart man, he was well-educated and went on to a successful career an an environmental engineer in the railroad industry.
But he was also a simple man, an American who simply did his duty when his nation needed him.
In so doing he changed the course of history, not only for the dozens of men he saved, but for the nation as well. Sure, if Liebenow had not been there, another man would have captained the PT boat he controlled. But would that man have saved Kennedy and his crew, despite warnings they could be moving into a trap?
Would that other man have been as effective as fishing those 60 sailors from the USS Corry wreckage, ensuring their survival and that their kids, their grandkids, and even their great-grandkids, would go on to have life?
It’s hard to say. What is clear, though, was Liebenow answered the call of duty. He stepped forward to serve his country when it was needed, continually put himself at risk for others, and truly changed the direction of history along the way.
Few of us will have the opportunities to have such a wide-ranging effect on the world, but we should all remember Liebenow as an example of what can happen when we simply do our duties and do them to the best of our abilities.
The greatest generation? Maybe not. But Liebenow was certainly among the greatest of that generation, and that made him a true American hero.