Thomas Childers | Soldier from the War Returning
October 24, 2009
Dr. Kent: Hello everyone. Welcome to Sound Authors. I’ve got four fantastic guests on the show today. We’re back to an older format of Sound Authors, just for this show, and then we’ll be back to the brand new format with a great show next week. I’ve got four guests on the show today. My first guest will be Thomas Childers, an award-winning professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His newest book is called, ‘Soldier from the War Returning.’ After that, I’ll be talking to the New York Times bestselling author, Ronald Kessler, about his newest book called, ‘In the President’s Secret Service.’ After that will be the children’s author of ‘The Curious Garden,’ Peter Brown. At the end of the show will be Chris Smither, an incredible folk musician who just put out his eleventh studio album. He’s had a nearly forty year career. It’s my pleasure to welcome the author of an incredible book called, ‘Soldier from the War Returning.’ It’s about the troubled homecoming from World War II. Welcome to the show, Thomas Childers.
Thomas Childers: Thank you. My pleasure.
Dr. Kent: Tell me about this book. It’s about a soldier from the war returning, just like the title says. Tell me about it.
Thomas Childers: Well, I think we’re all familiar with Tom’s Brokaw’s book ‘The Greatest Generation,’ and this is a greatest generation storyline of the generation of men who went off, fought the wraith of the great depression, went off, fought the Second World War, prevailed in it, and then came home healthy, happy, well-adjusted, worked hard, had families, and went on. Those stories have been told over and over again. They’re inspiring; they’ve been told in volume. But I wondered what happened to those veterans whose reentry was troubled: those long-ignored, and then their families, who found readjustment from the war a disruptive, enriching experience, much like those from Vietnam, and the current wars that we’re enduring. I was born just after the Second World War, in that first wave of baby boomers. I grew up in a small town outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of the most common things that one can hear about men in the late ’40s, early ’50s, my mother would say, ‘He was never the same after the war.’ So I wondered if the experiences that I’d had growing up and seeing my parents, who had a very difficult time, if the parents of friends of mine, was somehow peculiar to my experience, or whether it was something more broad based. So I set out to find out, and discovered that in fact, the happy greatest generation storyline – it’s not that it’s so wrong, but it certainly doesn’t cover what was really a very traumatic reentry for so many veterans.
Dr. Kent: How does this differ from the books you’ve done before?
Thomas Childers: Well, I’ve written two other books about the Second World War. It’s the third in a trilogy, really. One was called, ‘Wings of Morning’ – the last American bomber shot down over Germany in World War II was about my maternal uncle who was killed on what was the last American bomber that was shot down over Germany in the Second World War – where the family had gotten a killed-in-action telegram on VE Day, so that while others were celebrating the end of the war, this family was plunged into real tragedy. I wanted to write about that, about the loss suffered by this family, and what it was like for these young men in their very early 20s who were flying dangerous missions over Germany in the Second World War. What I’ve then done in this book and the other two, is I’ve tried to write things that are historically accurate, but I’ve written them in a novelistic way, so that what I really wanted to do was to the capture the feelings and the experiences of people rather than the kind of dry historical rendering.
Dr. Kent: It’s a fascinating tale. You go into things in this book that again aren’t what we think of. Of course we think of Vietnam: we see Vietnam vets on the street. We know the story that they came home and it wasn’t a happy homecoming. We know even now the Iraq war vets, a lot of them have nerve damage, there’s hundreds of thousands of folks that have been injured in some way. Marriages dissolved, and all of this. So that happened too after the Second World War. What kind of things did you uncover?
Thomas Childers: It certainly did. First of all, we think of PTSD, which is written about a great deal about Vietnam vets, and the current wars. At the end of the Second World War, over in 1947, two years after the war had ended, over half the beds in veteran administration hospitals were occupied by men suffering from what they called neuropsychiatric disorders, we would say some form of PTSD. Forty percent of the army discharges during the war had been for psychiatric reasons. There were almost a million and a half troops hospitalized at some point during the war for what they called neuropsychiatric disorders. This was written about and talked about a great deal during the end of the war: men coming back, suffering from nightmares, alcohol abuse, shattered personal relationships. For example, in 1946 and in 1947, the United States went through a post-war divorce boom: the highest divorce rates in American history were in 1946 and 1947. We’ve topped them now, but it took until 1973 to do it. If you read through any of the things: books, ‘Life’ magazine, ‘Colliers’ and so on, divorce is talked about over and over and over again. One judge in Newark, New Jersey wanted – it was so common, that he was so furious at wives of service men, who were getting divorces, adultery being the charge – that he wanted to have their heads shaved, and then be branded with the scarlet letter. Didn’t happen.
Dr. Kent: Where do you find your documents? There’s so much material, I’m sure. You certainly culled through a lot of materials, but where did you find the most valuable material for this book?
Thomas Childers: The kind of thing I was just talking to you about, the numbers: psychiatric cases, the number of divorces, those were written up in ‘Time’ magazine and ‘Newsweek.’ You can follow them also in government statistical records. There are a lot of oral histories one can consult, but I did a lot of interviewing, all over the country: from California to Maine. Asking, talking to people, actually mostly many veterans of course, and now, unfortunately, widows of veterans, that generation passing away with great rapidity, and also people my age, that is now the grown children of veterans of the Second World War. What I discovered was that so many people had grown up in broken homes, had had fathers who had suffered from alcohol abuse, and so on, estranged parents and so on, and they were finally happy that they weren’t alone, that this has been the sort of great silent story of the aftermath of the Second World War. I have to say that one of the things about these oral histories is that you may be able to get veterans to talk about their combat experiences, but that’s not easy. It’s much more difficult to say, ‘Excuse me, but during the war, did you have an adulterous relationship? Did you drink too much when you came home? Did you abuse your wife and kids? Did you have nightmares? Were you ever treated for psychiatric problems?’ So it really takes pushing beyond this. One of the things that I did in the book is to write about my family, which had its great difficulties, the family of my best friend, whose father lost both legs in December of 1944, and had a very stormy relationship with his family when he came back. Then another man, a doctor, a very distinguished physician, a brilliant man, who was diagnosed in his 70s with a chronic case of post-traumatic stress disorder, which had led to divorce and estrangement from his children.
Dr. Kent: What is it like putting your own story into this book? Obviously it colors it in a different way.
Thomas Childers: It was a harrowing experience, and my parents are no longer alive. I’m not sure what they have thought about it, except that it’s true. It’s very, very difficult to do, and it was very courageous of the other people that I interviewed, the Alums, my best friend’s family, Michael Gould in Rhode Island, to be able to talk about very difficult personal experiences. But what it does do is to make those stories come alive, so that you’re not just dealing with divorce statistics, and statistics on psychiatric troubles.
Dr. Kent: Right. So what’s your take on this, the greatest generation? Obviously it’s in your subtitle to the book, it’s something that a lot of people think about, and it was a fantastic victory in some ways. Obviously these men were liberators, these men were heroes, whereas in Vietnam, it wasn’t the same situation. What did that stigma of the greatest generation, or of hero, or whatever, how did that affect this whole soldier from the war returning?
Thomas Childers: I think that nothing that I found in any way, it seems to me, diminishes the wartime generation’s accomplishments: they deserve all the testimonials and public tributes they get. But, what it does suggest is that the price they paid was far higher, the toll extracted from them and their families far greater, and their struggles far more protracted than the glossy tributes that we find in Tom Brokaw’s ‘The Greatest Generation’ would lead us to believe.
Dr. Kent: And you are a professor of history. When you’re teaching history to today’s young generation, how do you teach World War II history? How do you teach modern history to college students?
Thomas Childers: Well, the Second World War for college students now might as well be the 30-Year’s War from the 17th century. They’ve certainly seen movies; some of them watch the History Channel, even. But that generation of men and women that experienced the war is quickly passing away, and so what I try to do is to certainly deal with the major events of the war, give this great forward history, but also to bring as much of the experience, the emotional content of the war, what it was like for so-called ordinary men and women in the United States, or in Britain, or Russia, or Germany, or Japan. What it was like for them, and how they experienced what was the greatest, and by ‘greatest,’ I mean the most extensive conflict, in human history.
Dr. Kent: Well, it’s been such an honor chatting with you. The book is out on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and of course I’ve been speaking to Thomas Childers, author of ‘Soldier from the War Returning.’ It’s a powerful testimony to the suffering of soldiers no matter what the conflict is. We might think that these folks didn’t go through the same thing that the soldiers are going through these days, but it seems to be the case.
Thomas Childers: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Kent: And where can we find out more about you and about the book?
Thomas Childers: The Houghton Mifflin website, that certainly has information about the book and the University of Pennsylvania website has things about me and the books that I’ve written.
Dr. Kent: And students that are lucky enough to take your courses, what are you teaching now?
Thomas Childers: I teach a course called the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and then a course on the Second World War in film and fiction.
Dr. Kent: Well, a lot of us would love to be a fly on the wall in your classroom. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, and I hope to hear about the next one.
Thomas Childers: Well, thank you very much for having me.