Review By Repps Hudson
TV newsman and writer Tom Brokaw and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns may have left the impression that the troops of "The Greatest Generation" who fought in World War II were golden heroes every one.
They vanquished Hitler's Germany, Tojo's Japan and Mussolini's Italy. Then they came home, took off their uniforms, went to college on the GI Bill and created America's modern middle class.
True enough. But Thomas Childers looks beneath this pat image that comforts us, beneficiaries of the sacrifices those fighters made. He found human beings who were quite troubled, prone to nightmares, domestic violence and instability, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many were haunted by the same ugly reality veterans have faced since Homer wrote about Ulysses returning from the Trojan War.
Childers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the son of one of three veterans around whom he builds his compelling, nuanced narrative, whose title is taken from A.E. Housman's poem, "Soldiers From the Wars Returning."
The three central figures are his father, Thomas Childers, a ground crewman with the 390th Bomb Group based at Suffolk, England; Willis Allen, an infantryman who lost his legs when a German artillery shell wiped out his buddies in southern France; and Michael Gold, a navigator on a B-17 who was segregated in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp with other Jewish soldiers and airmen.
These are heartbreaking stories of service, fighting and valiant efforts to readjust to civilian life after the war ended in 1945. You can feel the urgency and passion with which these men wanted to come home and resume their lives. Many never could because of what they had done and seen in the war.
Thomas Childers conducted in-depth interviews with the men, each of whom became divorced in a time when divorce was the exception.
He quotes devastating attitudes in magazines of the day that warned about returning vets creating havoc in their communities. They even predicted higher levels of violence because they could not adjust to civilian life after the brutality of combat.
"Is Your Man Normal?" and, "Has Your Husband Come Home to the Right Woman?" were two articles in Ladies' Home Journal.
In some cases, these predictions came true. Gold finally turned to the Veterans Administration for group therapy because of his tempestuous personal life and unpredictable outbursts.
A former infantryman in Gold's group, an electrician after the war, could not shake the impression that enemy soldiers were outside his house:
"(H)e would turn down the TV and peek through the blinds or sneak out to investigate. Got so that he and his wife could barely hear the TV. His wife complained. There's nothing there, she would say, but he knew he was right. Always. He had heard something, goddammit. His marriage was stormy; they fought; he had trouble at work. Fifty years after coming home, he bristled with barely controlled hostility, giving off tension like a high-voltage wire."
German guards stripped another man naked, then beat him. He lost control of his bowels in front of a female guard and never completely regained his sense of self-respect. The incident gnawed at him five decades later.
Childers has written a serious account of the personal devastation that World War II had on the men and, by implication, women who endured combat, bombing raids, assaults, POW camps and other extreme circumstances. With his meticulous reporting and sensitive yet dispassionate writing, Childers pays the highest honor to the complete story of the Greatest Generation.
His message to those of us at home is equally powerful: Be understanding and respectful of those who have served in war, any war.
As the latest generation of combat-weary men and women return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Childers shows how enduring, and eternal, are the mental and physical wounds that veterans inevitably suffer