When I set out to write about the men and women who came of age in the Great Depression and then World War II, it was a way of saying thank you to the people who had given me the life I have today. I hoped members of that generation would read the stories and perhaps share their own with members of their family.
That has happened to a much greater degree than I had anticipated. But what has been equally gratifying is the response of younger generations of Americans who read the books and sought out their parents or grandparents to learn more about their lives. Baby boomers who were distanced from the values of their parents during the '60s now have a new appreciation for the sacrifices and deprivations of their mothers and fathers. Men, especially, often say, "Thank you for writing those books. I finally understand my father."
Others have used the books to open a new dialogue with parents or older friends from that time. In Montana, Dennis Tilton of the Shooting Star ranch south of Livingston approached me in a sporting-goods store to share his story. The year before, his father had been in failing health and almost blind. Tilton drove to town, bought The Greatest Generation and returned to his father's side. "I read it aloud to him every day between Christmas and New Year's," Tilton told me. "It was the most meaningful father-son time we'd ever had. We kept up the conversation about his life and what he'd gone through in the war until he died on Father's Day."
Jacqueline Scott described going to her father when she was a schoolgirl in their small South Dakota hometown and trying to interview him about the war for a school project. She wanted to know what war sounded like. He lowered his newspaper and said, "It sounded like hell." Scott said that was the end of the interview, but many years later she was deeply moved when her father, the town mechanic, died and a thousand people showed up for his funeral. His friends at the local American Legion Post performed the military rites. Their uniforms, she said, were mismatched suits, since in that town formal wardrobes were not a high priority. But she felt lucky to have been raised in their presence and to have shared their sense of patriotism.
One of my favorite stories involves Gregory Kirchner, a former Army medic and now a retired postal worker in Pennsylvania. He had written me asking for help in locating the widow of a friend, Sergeant Glenn Jones, who died in the Battle of the Bulge. Sergeant Jones' final words were expressions of concern for his wife and the child they were about to have. For more than a half-century, Kirchner had wanted to find Mrs. Jones to share her husband's last words.
With the help of the Veterans Administration, we located Virginia Jones in western North Carolina. She had never remarried, and her son, born two months after her husband's death, was named for him.