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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.

"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."

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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