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Family History: Looking Back to WWII

The children of the "greatest generation" uncover their parents' wartime past

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 several of them have written about it.

"People look for the 'honor and glory' of this war, forgetting that it was — like all wars — a horrible, awful, terrible thing."

For the most part, the rush of memoirs have dizzyingly similar titles involving some mix of the words "father" and "war" — and at least one called Our Mothers' War. But the authors, through their own personal stories, address 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, Tom Mathews, a former Newsweek editor, 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 octogenarian 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, the war has always been right there, behind them and between them. For some, it became a way to connect them, too.

Suzanne Freeman, an author and journalist, lives in Charlottesville, Va. This article was originally published in May 2005.

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