Gazette-Mail editorial: They don't make 'em like 'Mac' anymore

West Virginia, indeed the United States, lost a giant last month with the death of retired Brig. Gen. James Kemp McLaughlin, known to many as “General Mac.”

McLaughlin, who was 101 when he died, was the founder of the West Virginia Air National Guard, and the base in Charleston bears his name. He served in leadership positions with the Air Guard for 30 years. Before that, he piloted a B-17 Flying Fortress on 39 bombing missions during World War II. He also later led a fighter squadron in the Korean War.

A Braxton County native, McLaughlin joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 and was in Europe flying missions by the next year. In a statement on his death, the West Virginia Air National Guard recounted that, on his first mission, a bombing run over Nazi-occupied France, McLaughlin’s plane was nearly shot out from under him by a German fighter. The enemy plane was eventually taken down by one of the B-17’s gunners. McLaughlin is quoted as saying that first mission “separated the men from the boys.”

It’s hard to imagine anything like that in a modern context. The men and women who served in World War II, whether it was in the armed forces in war theaters in Europe or the Pacific, or going to a factory every day to make munitions, have earned the moniker “the Greatest Generation.” Sometimes, the weight behind that name can be overlooked, especially as the war recedes further into collective memory and the members of that generation become fewer and fewer.

Try to think of it like this: One day, you’re in your late teens or early 20s in West Virginia, and you hear reports of what is happening around the globe, but mostly you’re learning a trade, or maybe furthering your education and leading a fairly normal life. With a finger click, you’re at a massive military base somewhere in the United States you’ve never been, training to use weapons or machines you’ve only read about. Jump ahead another eye blink, and you’re behind the stick of a plane, flying in formation over a country you’ve never seen, or you’re on a boat approaching a shore lined with mines, razor wire and machine-gun nests. And, just a short time before, maybe you’d never even been outside the state of West Virginia.

If you’re still back stateside, you’re rationing food and products, like tin. You’re on an assembly line making the tanks that will be rolling across Europe, hopefully freeing millions from an evil that is very evident, but the outcome is far from certain.

It’s hard to fathom such a life. Wars are fought much differently now, and the geopolitical landscape is much more complicated. There is good reason to question why combat is occurring. Vietnam, Iraq and, now, Afghanistan, have taught the American populace again and again that they can’t necessarily trust what they see and hear from their government about overseas conflicts.

People like General Mac were fortunate not to have to face such moral ambiguity, but can hardly be envied, in fact only admired, for the sacrifices they made and the deeds — both heroic and horrible — they performed in the name of freedom.

They’ve earned their name, all right. May Gen. McLaughlin and all those who served be remembered with the reverence they deserve.

Funerals for Monday, January 27, 2020

Davis, Valerie - 11 a.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Hamrick, Leonard - 1 p.m., Waters Funeral Chapel, Summersville.

Hughes Jr., Denver - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Keen, Cora - 2 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Lazear, Elizabeth - 7 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Masters, Delores - 1 p.m., Glen Ferris Apostolic Church, Glen Ferris.

Milroy, Miller - 11 a.m., Simons-Coleman Funeral Home, Richwood.

Petro, Edith - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Phelps, Herbert - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Stanley, Gary - 1 p.m., Pryor Funeral Home, East Bank.

Stewart, Donna - 1 p.m., First United Methodist Church, South Charleston.

Walker, Iva - 1 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Wilkinson, Catharine - Noon, Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor Chapel.

Williams, Joseph - 3 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.