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Reflections on the ‘greatest generation’

Tom Brokaw on his affinity for the veterans of World War II.

My first real memories of life are on an Army base where all the talk and all the activity was organized around World War II. And so I thought, as a youngster, the world would always be at war. And then, suddenly, it was over and everybody came home — and no one talked about the war. No one said very much about it.

I went to Normandy to do the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, and I walked down to the beaches with two veterans of the first raid. They were wearing their windbreakers and their wives had their tight little permanents and they were modest, hard-working, very humble people.

They weren't going around, beating their chest, saying, “Look at me. Look at what I did.” Quite the opposite, they were humbled by what they had done and I thought, my God, these are the people who raised me. These are the people in my hometown, my parents' best friends, the people I care the most about. And I thought, I've got to write about this.

When my book came out and when Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks made “Saving Private Ryan,” I think America was wanting for authentic heroes.

I could write about World War II the rest of my life because there are so many stories. 

I was at the 60th anniversary of D-Day and we came across another story — Col. Frank Naughton, who had led a group of guys from an infantry paratroop regimen through a horrendous battle for five days in a French village. He was this modest man. I'd never heard his story before.

Well, how can I say one story is better than the next? It wasn't a perfect generation and a lot of them argue with me about it. CBS newsman Andy Rooney always says to me, “I don't think we're the greatest generation, Brokaw.”

I'm willing to laugh about that because it's been a great pleasure. I'm proud to have had a part in bringing attention to this generation.