The Greatest Generation
Copyright © 1998 by Tom Brokaw
Random House, Inc.
Tom Brokaw held the reins as sole anchor for NBC Nightly News from 1983 until 2004. During that time period he had the opportunity to interview hundreds of newsmakers on the US national front as well as on the world scene. This experience enabled him to undertake writing a novel about the veterans of World War II, a group which Brokaw characterizes as being the greatest generation of men and women ever to spring from the fabric of America.
Brokaw is the product of that generation, born in 1940 as the oldest son of Anthony and Jean Brokaw. His father worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, and young Brokaw had among his earliest memories living around military bases and personnel. He arrived just a short time before US involvement in World War II and grew up in an environment full of returning veterans of that conflict.
Brokaw was struck by the quietness of these men and women as they sought their place within a civilian economy which had changed much less than the military of which they had so recently been members. These men and women had been part of a successful effort to thwart the ambitions of Germany, Italy, and Japan in their alliance for world domination. They had learned to put aside many of their differences, as well as enduring the differences which refused to be denied. These people came from city, village, and farm, from college and those with little formal education, from privilege and from privation to unite in a national goal of survival.
On the home front were vast changes. No longer was it a society of women who stayed out of sight to care for the children and the home. They were forced by the demands of the war effort to take on tasks heretofore forbidden to women. They found that they were more than equal to that challenge, and in the process changed the course of their lives and their society. They became factory workers, clerks and military personnel. These women shouldered the burden of helping the war effort and the domestic economy while waiting for news of their loved ones from the battle front. That time had no satellite communications, no instant coverage of battle. They were forced to wait, sometimes months at a stretch, for word of their brothers, sisters, husbands and other relatives and friends. They banded together for support and for comfort, braving the uncertainty they shared. From these stressful circumstances friendships were forged, relationships which survived and thrived far after the conflict ended.
When America suffered the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, she was a nation still struggling from her knees in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The men and women who were called to service had already survived as children of a generation who knew severe want. Enlisting in the armed services meant a good pair of boots and three meals a day, something many had never known in their young lives.
Brokaw chronicles the stories of many of these brave men and women. He relays time after time the attitude that was so prevalent, an attitude of being willing to serve, to do something to help their country without expecting anything in exchange. This is a marked contrast to modern society where so many are more interested in what gain might be in it for themselves.
Some of these men and women came back to start businesses, to enter government service, and to create families. The WW II generation have in many cases been branded as materialists. Coming from their roots of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl years, and the war itself, their sin of materialism seems understandable and forgivable. They came home to a country which was still largely an agrarian society and remade it into the world leader in industry and technology. The years they gave to their country were years they seemed determined to regain by their effort and ambition.
These veterans flooded the colleges and universities. They used the GI Bill to pursue their goals and in the process became the best educated generation this nation has ever known. They studied math, science, and engineering. They used their new found knowledge to rebuild the nation in their own image.
Tom Brokaw tells the stories of dozens of these men and women, from their lives before the war through the years of conflict onward to their lives after the war. He relays the stories of the famous and the largely forgotten, weaving a fabric of straightforward prose which details the accomplishments of that amazing generation.
Those who served
Within the pages can be found the stories of Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye, both of whom served in the military, both of whom were wounded in that service. These men entered the world of politics following their service, though of different political parties, and each served in that capacity with distinction. Dole became Senate majority leader and eventually ran for President of the United States in 1996. Daniel Inouye for his part became the first Japanese-American to serve in the US Senate (six terms), and served on the Senate Watergate Committee which investigated abuses of power by President Richard Nixon, an investigation which led to the resignation of Nixon. Inouye earned a reputation for fairness from both sides of the aisle.
Others who are delineated include Joe Foss, Marine pilot and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMO). Foss went on to become governor of South Dakota, President of the NRA, and founding president of the fledgling American Football League.
Another veteran was Bob Bush, a medical corpsman in the US Navy and winner of the CMO who following the war started a lumber supply business back in his home state of Washington. He built a successful business and family.
Another is Al Neuharth, who served as an infantryman in the 86th Division. Following the war he entered the journalism business. His drive and ambition culminated with his creation of USA Today, a venture that traditional journalists forecast as dead on arrival. The newspaper today is a fixture in print media.
Other names which have become nationally known are Julia Child, who we know as the woman who introduced America to the cuisine of France. In the war she was part of the OSS. We find the story of Andy Rooney, the wild eye-browed curmudgeon of 60 Minutes fame. Before CBS made him a familiar figure, Rooney served in the US Army as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, the print media of the military.
On the home front we learn about Charles Briscoe, who served as an engineer for the Boeing Company and helped in the development of the B-29 bomber.
The story of Gertrude Belle 'Trudy' Elion unfolds, the tale of a woman who found a career in science. Her contributions, along with collaborator (and already famous) Dr. George Hitchings, led to the creation of many medical breakthroughs. Their work laid the foundation of much of current cancer and antiviral research and treatment. Elion, along with Hitchings, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988. Hers was a career spurred by the manpower shortage during the war. She answered the need and as a result all of humankind has benefited.
Brokaw details the stories of dozens of others, people who overcame hardship, who battled discrimination and sexism and made the world better for their struggle. Rather than becoming a chronicle of the shortcomings of America, the focus becomes one of overcoming obstacles in a quiet triumph of the human spirit.
My interest in reading this biographical work, aside from my interest in history, is personal. My father served as a medical corpsman during WW II in France and Germany, spending four years and seven months of his youth in the effort. It was a war which he survived, and one which changed him forever. My wife's father served on the USS Missouri, the site of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay to General Douglas MacArthur. My wife was employed by the spouse of one of the children of Charles Briscoe, the Boeing engineer who worked on the B-29 bomber.
The book is very straightforward, not given to flowery phrases or grandstanding. It tells the story of many men and women who simply served their country, most of whom were volunteers. They went to do a job, to survive, and to return to their lives at home. Some found fame, some success, some a large measure of both. The book is a worthwhile experience, a good investment of time and reflection. It helps us to understand the young men and women who were challenged as other generations before have been challenged by the destruction of all they held dear. These men and women met the challenge and overcame it. In return they have made few demands of their country. They don't demand our respect, don't need our attention. They grew up fast and hard, and in the growing became strong and secure in their own identity. In the final analysis they may really have been, just as Mr. Brokaw maintains, the greatest generation ever produced by our nation.