Tom Brokaw tapped an enormous reservoir of dormant sentiment in 1998 with the publication of The Greatest Generation, available this month for the first time in paperback. After more than 40 printings, there are almost 4 million hardcover copies in print, making it one of the best-selling nonfiction titles of the past decade.
Brokaw's thesis is simple: The generation of Americans that came of age during World War II was "the greatest generation any society has ever produced." He made his point by telling the stories of nearly 50 survivors of that era, most of whom are now in their late 70s to mid-80s. But this great generation is losing the battle against time, and the busy NBC anchorman wanted to capture their stories before they disappeared.
The book became a phenomenon, not just because of the surviving generation, but because of the succeeding generation, the baby boomers who grew up in families and communities affected by the sacrifices and heroism of their fathers' and mothers' generation.
Now comes a follow-up, An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation which is essentially a collection of letters Brokaw received in reaction to the first book. Brokaw writes in the foreword: "It was a common trait of the Greatest Generation not to discuss the difficult times and how they shaped their lives, but now, in their twilight years, more and more members of that remarkable group of men and women are determined to share their experiences." Whether the stories are about a 17-year-old enlistee who participated in the Bataan Death March, or about eyewitness accounts of the D-Day Invasion or the Battle of the Bulge, they are riveting in their detail and inspirational in their selfless passion.
As a baby boomer, I could not help but be affected by these books. My Uncle Calvin lost an arm at the age of 18 aboard a ship in the South Pacific. After more than 55 years of living without that arm, he is still with us, thankfully, a role model for me and others of my generation.
Whatever the final assessment of American culture, certainly one of the highest points will be the generation that marched off to war to save the world and did! James L. Dickerson is the author of numerous books, including Colonel Tom Parker, reviewed in this issue.