[wwii] Heirs of War The children of the "greatest generation"

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[WWII] Heirs of War The children of the "greatest generation"

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Sun May 22 15:59:13 EDT 2005

Heirs of War The children of the "greatest generation" hit the trenches to

uncover their parents' lost stories

By Suzanne Freeman

May 2005

This month, when Ray and Cristy Pfeiffer lead a group tour to

commemorate the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, nearly 90 percent of

those following them to the Arc de Triomphe, the Normandy beaches

and the Ardennes Forest will be the sons and daughters of veterans

who served there.

The interest of baby boomers was something the Pfeiffers didn't

foresee in the early 1980s when they launched their company,

Historic Tours, which specializes in visits to World War II sites.

They figured their business would run out of steam as veterans aged

and stopped traveling. "We thought we'd quit at that point," Ray

Pfeiffer says.

Instead, enter the boomers. And, not surprisingly, they have their

own agenda. Ten years after the fanfare surrounding the 50th

anniversary of the war's end and seven years after Tom Brokaw coined

the term "greatest generation," boomers now want to understand this

history on their own terms.

"They are almost desperate to touch the past," Pfeiffer says. "They

want the physical connection—to walk in places where their parents

walked, to gather sand on the beach where their fathers landed.

Sometimes it gets very emotional."

Jonathan Gawne, 45, of Framingham, Mass., can attest to his

generation's "skyrocketing" interest in researching personal WWII

stories. The author of a number of books on military history, Gawne

wrote Finding Your Father's War, a how-to book due out in July,

as "a matter of self-defense" after being inundated with questions

from people wanting to learn how to research and understand their

parents' wartime experiences.
"For a long time those in the war just wanted to forget the war, so

they didn't talk about it," he says. "For their children, it's a

hole in the family history. Now, for a lot of people, it's become

important to find this missing chunk of someone's life."

Wesley Johnston, 58, of Clovis, Calif., understands the motivation

to fill in the blanks in this elusive chapter in a parent's life.

Johnston started his own search in 1994 when the commemorations of D-

Day made him realize how little he knew about his late father's days

in the war. "I knew he had ridden in a halftrack, been in an armored

division, been at the Battle of the Bulge at St. Vith, Belgium, and

had frozen feet," he says. "That was it."

Johnston began gathering pieces of information and assembling

them "like a jigsaw puzzle." He traveled to St. Vith, discovered

foxholes dug by his father's company and realized men had fought for

their lives in them. Resolved to tell about the soldiers'

experiences, Johnston set up a website, "Dad's War: Finding and

Telling Your Father's World War II Story."In the last five years the

hits to the site have at least quadrupled, he estimates.

"This kind of research is all about finding new understanding and

connection," Johnston says. "You wonder: What was it like for my

dad? If he was telling his story, what would it be?"
The stories that most veterans would tell are not simple. And

they're not all heroic stories either. It's a mistake to romanticize

the war when you do this kind of research, Gawne cautions. It

diminishes the truth of the actual stories.

"I worry," he says, "that people look for the `honor and glory' of

this war, forgetting that it was—like all wars—a horrible, awful,

terrible thing."
Gawne's father, who fought and was seriously wounded in the Brittany

campaign, returned home to suffer recurring nightmares. He repressed

his memories so thoroughly that, to his son, everything seemed

reduced to "just a uniform hanging in the back of the closet." Other

children of vets have reported having a similar experience as they

were growing up—and now some of them are beginning to write about

Along with the boomer interest in WWII has come a rush of published

memoirs, many with dizzyingly similar titles involving some mix of

the words "father" and "war"—and at least one called Our Mothers'

War. The authors, through their own personal stories, are addressing

a question that's pertinent for their entire generation: Just how

did war change our parents?

Several, such as Julia Collins' My Father's War and Louise

Steinman's The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, have

offered complex portraits of men who brought their nightmares home.

Collins' father, unable to shake off wartime memories, failed at his

career, marriage and—he believed—at life itself. Steinman's father,

while more outwardly successful, became a distant, emotionally aloof

figure to his children, a man marked by small mysteries.

"The whistling teakettle was banned from our kitchen," Steinman

recalls. "The hissing sound unnerved him. `Something to do with the

war.' "
In Our Fathers' War: Growing Up in the Shadow of the Greatest

Generation, due out this month, former Newsweek editor Tom Mathews

asks, "Could it be possible that every father who has seen combat

comes home a mystery to his son?"
Prompted by his own estrangement from his 81-year-old father,

Mathews looked for answers by gathering stories from other veterans

and sons around the country. He searched for clues in diaries, boxes

of medals and letters mailed home from prison camps. He examined

family photographs that documented how a man's face changed during

the course of the war. Finally, in a riveting interview with veteran

and writer Louis Simpson, he hit upon the heart of the mystery.
"You shut down the part of you that remembers too well how it feels

to huddle in a hole and be shelled. You are going to forget that.

You are going to make yourself forget," Simpson says. "You're going

to shut down a lot of things. You were afraid so you shut it down.

The whole machine—you shut it down. And you don't talk about what

you did because it will bring everything back."

But remembering and talking—while not always painless—may be the

best answer for both generations these days. When Tom Mathews

persuaded his father to travel with him back to Italy and confront

his war memories for the first time in more than 50 years, the

experience was emotional, unsettling and cathartic all at once. The

two men found themselves talking about things they never dared to

voice before.

"What I feel," the older Mathews tells his son, "is redemption."
For boomers and their parents it's clear that the war has always

been right there, behind them and between them. Now, perhaps it can

connect them too.
Suzanne Freeman, an author and journalist, lives in Charlottesville,

More on This Story

WWII Research: Sleuth Now, Before It's Too Late
Submit your story to the Veterans History Project
Photo Gallery: WWII Memorial
AARP.org's Veterans Channel
Listen to WWII Memories (AARPmagazine.org)
Captain Cole's Last Mission (AARPmagazine.org)
Sixty Years Later: Return to Normandy (AARPmagazine.org)
Travel Back in Time to WWII Europe (AARPmagazine.org)

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