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Family History: Looking Back to WWII

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

When Ray and Cristy Pfeiffer led a group tour to commemorate the 60th anniversary of V-E Day in May 2005, nearly 90 percent of those following them to the Arc de Triomphe, the Normandy beaches and the Ardennes Forest were the sons and daughters of veterans who served there.

 Kristine Larsen

"For a long time those in the war just wanted to forget the war, so they didn't talk about it. For their children, it's a hole in the family history." 

The interest of boomers was something the Pfeiffers didn't foresee in the early 1980s when they launched their company, World War II Historic Tours. 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, boomers followed with their own agenda. Perhaps inspired in part by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw's 1998 best-seller, The Greatest Generation — and, three years later, its sequel, The Greatest Generation Speaks — boomers seem to want to understand this history on their own terms.

"They are almost desperate to touch the past," says Pfeiffer, who is gearing up for his company’s 70th Anniversary of D-Day Tour in June 2014, and recently led an intergenerational trip for college students and five World War II vets (ages 83 to 92). About the boomers he meets on his tours, 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, 50, can attest to his generation's 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, 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. For a lot of people, it's become important to find this missing chunk of someone's life."
                    
Wesley Johnston, 63, 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 understood 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.

"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."

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