Few children relate easily to the young lives of their parents. Events that precede our own births automatically fall into the category of "history," a distant time however few years have actually passed. For the baby boomers, the army of children produced by the men and women who began their families once the war was over, the disjunction between their world and the world of their parents could hardly have been greater. One represented deprivation, sacrifice, and hard-won prosperity; the other, greatly expanded opportunity and, even during Vietnam, more personal choices.
Those differences led to some historic and well-documented rifts -- indeed, to a cultural revolution that since has cooled. Now, based on many of the letters I received, as the boomers grow older they also become much more aware of what their parents had endured and the legacy of their early challenges.
In watching her father care for her mother after a debilitating stroke, Janet McKeon of O'Fallon, Illinois, realized that the strength of their relationship grew out of their war experience.
As a member of the early Baby Boom generation who lived through the Vietnam years, I thought we were the group who had been wronged, with our boyfriends/husbands fighting in a faraway place in a war that nobody wanted to be a part of, and with no appreciation by others of what we went through.
Your book certainly gave me a different perspective on that. But that's not all your book did for me. It made me wonder about my own parents' participation in and life during the war. Of course I knew my dad had served and that my older sister was born during the war, but he never talked about it and I guess I was never interested enough to ask.
Sad to say, but during the past year my dad and I have had a lot of time to talk since my mother had a stroke and required constant care. I made a three-hour trip home every week to help with her care and it was during this time that he started telling me about their life during the war.
What an eye-opener these stories were to me. It was hard to believe that in all those years since the war they had never complained about those hardships, the separations and the fear of the bombing missions (my dad was a bombardier who flew missions out of England). I had always seen my parents as good, hardworking people but the year that we cared for my mother showed me their strength, which they obviously also had during the war years. My dad cared for her 24 hours a day, never complaining, always appreciative of the help my sisters and I gave, but never demanding or expecting it. My mother endured the helplessness and, at the end, the hopelessness with quiet dignity until she died in May...
My real reason for writing to you is to urge you to use your public voice to remind members of my generation who are still lucky enough to have one or both parents alive, to listen to their stories before they are lost forever. Mike McReaken, of Manvel, Texas, wrote to describe a similar experience:
My father passed away last year after a three-year struggle with the effects of a severe stroke. He was at home because of the love and devotion of my mother, his wife of 55 years. My dad was at Pearl Harbor on one of the few ships of the line that was able to escape the sneak attack. For many years I tried to get my dad to tell me what it was like on that Sunday morning. He never would -- or could -- talk about it....
It was difficult to read The Greatest Generation
without tearing up or being emotionally choked up to know of the hardships, loss and joy that my parents' generation suffered through. After watching my mother care for Dad since the day of his stroke, I always knew it was because of her unconditional love for him, and his deep-seated fear of being placed in a nursing home. But after reading about the many others in The Greatest Generation
, I also understand and appreciate more why my parents made the choices and decisions that they did throughout their entire lives together. Some children of the Greatest Generation have their own memories of the war years. John E. Smith of Soldotna, Alaska, was living in California as a young child.
My first memories are of my grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and mom gathered around the radio at night listening to the news. Night after night this took place. No talking on my part was allowed as every word was listened to with a gravity I have never since felt. Sometimes the broadcasts were very hard to hear, as there was a great deal of static noise. I still remember looking around at my family and seeing faces so serious that I was afraid.
Over time, I learned that my dad was in England getting ready to fight Hitler. I didn't learn until after the war exactly what he did. I did not find out from him, either; my grandmother had to tell me. My father never spoke to me in any detail about the war. I learned that he was part of the Red Ball Express hauling mostly fuel to Patton. He went to Europe six days after D-Day as a buck sergeant and came home a battlefield-commissioned captain. After the war, the Army Air Corps became the Air Force and my father went with the Air Force.
The reason we moved to California was also for the war effort. My mother drove a wrecker for the military. My aunt and grandmother were building airplanes, and my grandfather was a tool and die maker also involved with building airplanes. One of the things that I to this day remember clearly is that I once saw a poster for Rosie the Riveter and she had a blue and white hankie tied around her head. That night when my aunt came home she was wearing the same hankie around her head, and I thought the poster was of her.
I also remember shortages. My grandmother complained the most. Grandma liked to bake and the two most essential things, butter and sugar, were always in short supply. Many people also talk about gasoline being rationed, but rubber, i.e., tires, was also in short supply. My grandfather was something of a genius in repairing tires that were no good. He had built a little "vulcanizer," he called it. He would recap portions of old tires that other people said were not repairable. I remember people coming over at night with an old damaged tire asking Grandpa to please fix it, and he would.
When I was four years old I went from house to house with other kids asking people to donate any old aluminum pots or other aluminum they might have so it could be made into airplanes....
I remember V-E [Day] as very confusing. My mother and aunt broke down and cried. My mother was essentially out of control and no one was able to make her stop crying. I was very scared, and everyone tried to tell me it was because she was so happy, but I could not believe this until much later when she did stop. My dad finally came home in 1946! I didn't even know him.
My father never really spoke to me (or anyone) about the war. When I asked him about his being commissioned an officer in the field, he only said that they were short of experienced men and that he was most experienced so they "appointed" him. He did not like being an officer and resigned his commission in 1946 to become a master sergeant.
My father passed away in 1972. His civilian funeral was held in Riverside, California. We then placed his flag-draped casket on a train. My mother was not in good health and could not go with him on the train. I rode with him in the baggage car to San Francisco, where he had a military burial with full honors. This is where I learned about some of what he had done in Europe. I still do not know how his fellow soldiers learned about his funeral but there were about fifteen men [there]. We spoke a little after the ceremony and they informed me of his bravery and leadership under fire. Most of these men were in tears and there was a lot of emotion displayed for a few moments. Then it was suddenly over, and they all (to a man) began to change the subject and start telling jokes. Each seemed to be embarrassed that they had spoken at all.
I will never forget that day, or those men. I have tears in my eyes now, just writing about it. Like you, I was raised by those men and women who rarely spoke of their sacrifice and heroism. Thank God they were there!
Excerpted from The Greatest Generation Speaks by Tom Brokaw. Copyright © 1999 by Tom Brokaw. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.