Nov 9

‘It Still Takes My Breath Away’

Monday, November 9, 2015 12:01 AM


An Interview with Tom Brokaw

"During the war, my dad was working in southwestern South Dakota at an ordnance depot on an Army base that held a garrison of Italian prisoners of war. The Army was testing ammunition out on the prairie and storing it there. Those are my earliest memories of the military," recalled Tom Brokaw, pictured in 1944. (Courtesy of Tom Brokaw)

Tom Brokaw, pictured in 1944, recalled: “During the war, my dad was working in southwestern South Dakota at an ordnance depot on an Army base that held a garrison of Italian prisoners of war. The Army was testing ammunition out on the prairie and storing it there. Those are my earliest memories of the military.” (Courtesy of Tom Brokaw)



Scheduled to deliver the Third Annual Haydn Williams World War II Memorial Legacy Lecture on 10 November at the National Defense University in Washington is Tom Brokaw—certainly no stranger to the U.S. Naval Institute and Naval History magazine.

Since joining NBC News in 1966, he has won every major award in broadcast journalism. The former anchor and managing editor of The NBC Nightly News met in Washington with then-Naval History Editor Fred Schultz about how and why he came to write his well-known book The Greatest Generation.

Naval History: Since you’ve had no military service, some people might wonder why you wrote a book like this.

Brokaw: When I graduated from the University of South Dakota, I wanted to go into the Navy. So I applied to the OCS [officer candidate school] program and was accepted and looked forward to it. But I had flat feet. In the last station of the physical, they said, “We can’t take you, you’ve got flat feet.”

I went to the draft board and volunteered, but the same regulation applied. In 1962 Vietnam had not yet heated up, so they said, “You’ve got flat feet. We’ll make you 1-Y.” I missed my opportunity. I think it would have been good for me, frankly.

Naval History: People in this country often seem to be starving for heroes. How do you feel about that?

Brokaw: People are reviewing what this nation has been through and what they’ve personally been through. When they look back on World War II, they think, “My God, look at all we have accomplished, at home and abroad.” It really is breathtaking when you think about it—the scope, the mobilization, the retooling of American industry to produce armaments, the training that went on in a short time, yet was done so skillfully. Look at the magnitude of the military challenges set before these people: the terrible blow at Pearl Harbor, for example. But they recovered from it and prevailed, east and west, and came back and built the country.

I think that there often is a longing for simpler times. The World War II generation will tell you that no one should want to go back to those times because they were so hard. What these people say is that they’ve made it possible for this current generation to create its own era, which is what I believe.

Naval History: Often in your book you wrote that the people who saw combat generally didn’t want to talk about it much. How did you get them to open up?

Brokaw: I think they opened up in part because they are now in the mortality zone and they want people to know what they went through. And they want the rest of society to understand the lessons of that.

This book had many beginnings in my mind. One of them came when I was at my little house in the far northwestern corner of Connecticut in a wonderful little town called Litchfield, a real picturesque Yankee community that goes back to the early 1700s.

I read an obituary in the paper one day about a man who had been a lawyer and the first selectman, which is the equivalent of the mayor. He had been active in his church and school and in the town’s cultural affairs, and he was widely regarded. But no one knew about his war experience. He had been diagnosed, as I remember now, with brain cancer, and he was going to die. He knew that. As the paper recounted it later in his obituary, about three months into his diagnosis he said to his wife, “There are some parts of my life I’ve never talked about. You should hear them.” He was a real heroic figure. He had done great brave things and had been instrumental in operations to liberate Europe. How many stories are out there just like this one? How many of these people have never told their stories? We had better get them down on paper before they die.

On the 50th Anniversary of D-Day I remember telling my wife to ask these guys where they were that day. Almost uniformly, their response was, “Oh, I was at Omaha, but I didn’t do anything more than anybody else did.” Then we would say, “We understand that. But what did you do that day?” We finally got them to talk about it. These were kids 18 to 22 years of age in the greatest military invasion in the history of mankind. They faced withering fire from Germans dug in along that coastline. And they walked into a storm front of 88-mm and small-arms fire and grenades and bombs and land mines and obstacles of all kinds. And they were determined to liberate Europe. It still takes my breath away.

Naval History: What about the Pacific landings and invasions?

Brokaw: I wrote about those, as well. I do think that there’s been almost an undue concentration on Europe. Obviously, the Marines and the Navy in the Pacific were equally important.

One of the subjects in the book was a Pacific war veteran from my hometown. After one Halloween, he was complaining about the high school kids the night before. My mother said to him—kind of in a jocular way, because he was a guy who was well-known for his sense of humor—“Oh, come on, Gordon. Where were you when you were 17?” He looked at her and said, “I was landing on Guadalcanal.” That’s as good a sound bite as I’ve ever heard, by the way. So I found Gordon Larsen. He landed at Guadalcanal and at Bougainville and at Okinawa. He lost his brother at Bougainville, saw him killed in front of him. He went through all that and had the canteen shot off his hip. He was a Browning automatic rifleman, in the thick of it all the time. And he had never, ever talked about it.

Naval History: I count ten Navy and Marine Corps veterans in your book. What might set them apart from the rest? Did you see any common thread among them?

Brokaw: I think that the Marines I wrote about are like Marines everywhere. My youngest brother was a Marine, and my closest friend was a Marine killed in Vietnam. And—you can print this—they had bigger balls than anybody I knew. The Navy people were quite heroic as well. I wrote about a man by the name of Hack Hagen, who was a gunnery officer on the cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA-25). Then I went back and read what Samuel Eliot Morison had to say about the Salt Lake City in the North Pacific. It was a hell of a fight, and Hack was in the thick of it the entire time. I had never heard him talk about that before.

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