Tom Childers: Historian says many in the Greatest Generation came home broken

Historians in the News

On the windowsill next to his desk in College Hall, Tom Childers, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, displays photographs of the important people in his life.
Next to pictures of his wife and three children are portraits of two men in uniform. Both fought in World War II. Both are captured in their prime - cinematically handsome, winsomely confident, the cream of American manhood.

Childers knows these men well. One is his uncle; the other, his father. They are his Muses, the inspiration behind his recent work, including the book he is writing now, The Best Years of Their Lives: Coming Home From World War II and Beyond.

The title is taken from the 1946 Oscar-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives. Given the book's thesis - for many vets, World War II and its aftermath were anything but "the best" - it's a title steeped in irony.

"The Brokaw 'Greatest Generation' romanticization of the men and women who fought in the so-called 'Good War' leaves the impression that everybody came back healthy, happy and well-adjusted," Childers says. "That didn't accord with my experience at all."

Childers, who now lives in Media, was born in 1946, one year after the war. He grew up in a house full of war stories and witnessed its aftershocks in his own family and the lives of others in his hometown near Chattanooga, Tenn.

His mother's brother, Howard Goodner, was a dashing basketball player who won a scholarship to Western Kentucky University. He was a radio operator aboard the last U.S. bomber shot down over Germany. The telegram informing the family that he was missing in action arrived on VE Day.

"His death tormented the family for years," Childers says....
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