By Annie Crenshaw
Another light has gone out of the world with the loss of John Goodwin Little, Jr., on Feb. 23, 2021.
Little, who died at age 96, was a member of “the Greatest Generation” – people who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and then lived on into some of the most the prosperous decades in our country’s history.
The “Greatest Generation” term was coined more than twenty years ago by Tom Brokaw, former anchor and managing editor of NBC News. Brokaw’s best-selling book, The Greatest Generation, was published in 1998.
“On the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day,” Brokaw wrote, “I was broadcasting from the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, one of the bloodiest battlefields in American history. The cemetery is at once haunting and beautiful, with 9,386 white marble headstones in long, even lines across the manicured fields of dark green, each headstone marking the death of a brave young American.”
Brokaw’s experiences during World War II memorial services in 1994 motivated him to write his book and tell the extraordinary stories of Americans who gave new meaning to the terms: courage, sacrifice, and honor.
John G. Little was one of those Americans.
Born in Greenville in 1924, John G. Little was the eldest child of John G. Little, Sr., and Carrie Louise Hobbs. He was the grandson of Butler County native John B. Little, the educator and author who wrote “The History of Butler County, Alabama from 1815 to 1885.”
John G. Little, Jr., was a founding member of The Butler County Historical Society in 1964, and served a term as president of the Society. He enthusiastically researched his family and his late wife’s family, the Cooks.
By the time Little graduated from Butler County High School in May 1942, our nation was at war. Our world would be forever changed.
Little left the University of Alabama for military service in December 1942, and was assigned to the 547th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion. He became the company bugler and messenger for “D” Battery, and spent 18 months training in California before being shipped overseas to join the 95th Infantry Division in Normandy, France.
The 95th Infantry Division participated in major campaigns in France and Germany during World War II, including the Lorraine, Central Europe, and Rhineland campaigns.
Under the command of General George S. Patton, the 95th Division earned the nickname “Iron Men of Metz” for fighting to liberate and defend the town of Metz on Nov. 22, 1944. The men were highly commended for their bravery in fighting back fierce German counterattacks.
Nine men from Little’s battalion were killed, including two from his own battery, Battery D.
“We didn’t have a lot of casualties like the infantry did,” Little wrote in an autobiographical article, “But we knew these people for so long that it was very bad when someone was killed.”
The 95th Infantry Division fought on.
Little recalled: “On December 1, 1944, our battery had crossed the German border. We stopped at the little village of Feldsberg on December 5, 1944…We shot our first plane down near the village of Feldsberg.
Fifty years later one of my friends went back and saw the plane. I was on a tour over there in 1990, and the bus wouldn’t stop in Feldsberg. We just drove through it. I wanted to look for that airplane.”
Many World War II veterans made similar journeys to see the places where they had served, and where their friends and fellow soldiers had died.
For his World War II service, John G. Little was awarded three bronze stars, the American Theater Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
In 2019, Little was decorated with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest merit award. It’s an honor bestowed upon French citizens as well as foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds, including individuals who contributed to the country professionally as well as veterans who risked their lives fighting on French soil during World War II.
As a “Chevalier” or Knight of the Legion, Little joined the ranks of other French Legion of Honor recipients, such as Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur.
Another Butler County native, Nimrod T. Frazer of Montgomery, received the Chevalier honor in 2017. Born in 1929, Frazer is a decorated veteran who served as a tank platoon leader in Korea in 1952-1953.
These men were everyday heroes in extraordinary times. They are part of a generation of individuals who knew how to withstand hardship in difficult times, and who built a better world because of it.
Tom Brokaw described them as Americans who “stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.”
We will miss John G. Little. He’s part of the Greatest Generation, the likes of which we may never see again.
They are, quite simply, great.