Talk to the Honorable John D. Dingell, Jr. and according to him, “You are talking to a very lucky guy.”

The 15th District Congressman and Chairman Emeritus of the Committee on Energy is referring to his bout with meningitis at the Florida military base where he was stationed after basic training during World War II.  As one of the first recipients of a new ‘wonder drug’ called penicillin, he survived.

Many of the GIs who had contracted the disease at the same time, did not.

And then there the role he was to have played in the mainland invasion of Japan.  Having successfully graduated from Fort Benning OTC, he was slated to be a platoon leader in that first wave of troops that were set to land in Japan, and event which the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s subsequent surrender, made unnecessary.

Indeed, a lucky guy.

“Later I found out what the life expectancy was for somebody in my position following the landing,” he said during an interview in his well-appointed Dearborn office.  “About ten seconds.”

“It was shaping up to be a perfectly hideous event,” he says, describing the invasion in understatement.  “I will always be grateful to Truman for having the courage to drop those bombs.  And the half million American lives that the invasion would have cost us?  I guarantee they’re all grateful, too.”

He pointed out that, pre-invasion, the Secretary of Defense had minted so many Purple Hearts in anticipation of casualties that they are still giving them out to soldiers today.

Congressman Dingell’s almost encyclopedic knowledge of World War II—a conflict he joined eagerly, but late due to his age, has proven indispensible to building a timeline for the experiences of the veterans we’ve interviewed to date. 

Driven by enthusiasm, Dingell deferred a bit at the outset of the interview, reminding us that he had never been shot at, never engaged in any of the heroic battles than many of our interview subjects saw first-hand.  But, his remarkable storehouse of dates, facts, anecdotes and back stories from a memory that remains crystal clear to this day, put much of the historical fact-checking we’ve done into perspective.

Dingell's gratitude for his life’s worth of experience proved equally heartwarming, and just compelling.  “After the war, I attended college on the GI Bill.” he says. “That piece of legislation has paid for itself many times over in the taxes of the men and women who took advantage of it.  That bill virtually single-handedly created an educated middle class in this country.”

Naturally, the subject of Congressional bills quickly bubbles to the surface in any discussion with Dingell, the longest-serving Congressman in US history.  First seated in 1955, filling the void caused by the death of his father, Dingell has spent five decades writing some of the best known laws protecting our health and our environment and the rights of workers and consumers. One notable example is the 1990 Clean Air Act which is credited with cleaning up the air we breathe, while preserving American competitiveness.  He fought for the passage of revolutionary legislation such as the Endangered Species Act; as well as laws that address America's most pressing needs like the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Mammography Quality Standards Act.

He counts his military service as the proudest of his seemingly endless list of accomplishments, which includes bear-trapping (A job he calls “even better than the one I have today!”):  “The Army took an eighteen year old kid, and made him a man.  The lessons I took from that experience—how to lead, how to cooperate, how to overcome obstacles—have held me in good stead ever since.”

Still, at the core of any conversation with Congressman Dingell is the humility born of a Polish Catholic upbringing in several Detroit-area parishes.  “The greatest generation?” he says of his own membership in that group, men and women who came of age just after the Great Depression.  “My ego is not big enough to allow me to concur.  We did what was expected of us; we did what we needed to do, that’s all.  Today’s generation hasn’t been tested in quite the same way.  If they were, I am confident that they would make the same choices.”

He is, however, quite vocal on Detroit’s contribution to victory, and proudly rattles off any number of Detroit businesses re-tooled for service to the Defense Department.  “It was a ‘production’ war,” he maintains, “and nowhere else in the world was manufacturing better situated to produce what was required.”

“A lot of people don’t realize how close we came to losing World War II,” he points out.  “It was primarily because of what Detroit could produce that we were able keep going forward as a fighting unit.  We could replace tanks, planes, ships… Japan and Germany could not.  The United States was very lucky that Detroit was so ready and willing to pitch in.”

Again, the subject of luck comes up.

And fitting, too, considering how lucky the Visionalist crew felt for having been given the opportunity to spend a few hours in the company of the distinguished and fascinating John. D. Dingell.



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