Tom Mathews: “Our Fathers’ War”
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TERENCE SMITH: The book is “Our Fathers’ War.” The author is Tom Mathews. Along with senior writer and editor at Newsweek, Mathews’ latest book is subtitled, “Growing up in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation.” It recounts the complex father- son relationships that often developed after the veterans came home from World War II. Tom Matthews, welcome. What drew you to the subject in the first place?
TOM MATHEWS: I think I wrote “Our Fathers’ War,” Terry, because it became clear to me that World War II had never ended for my own father, even more than a half a century later. And the truth was that between my father and me, we were at war every day of our lives from August 1945, on.
TERENCE SMITH: You, in fact, write about that very early in the book, and maybe you could read that passage to us where you talk about the relationship and the way it was affected by the war when he came home from the war.
TOM MATHEWS: “I wanted my father’s love; he longed for mine. But from the day he came home, the kinetic energy of World War II struck at our center of gravity. To what might otherwise have been the normal primordial course of battle between fathers and sons, the war added its own peculiar convolutions. In our case, from that first day, my father thought, not without reason, that he was looking at a soft little pain in the neck; and I thought, on balance, that my life would be off to a much better start if only the Germans had killed him.”
TERENCE SMITH: (Laughs) So things were rocky when he came home. You were a small boy.
TOM MATHEWS: Yes, the first day he came home, I was sitting on the doghouse out behind our house in Salt Lake City. He came across the backyard, threw his arms open to me and said, “Jump.” And I thought it was too far and hesitated. And he said, “No son of mine will be a coward,” wheeled and disappeared. So we got off to a very rocky start.
TERENCE SMITH: And you write in the portions of the book that deal with your own relationship with your father that this led to a real breach and that the breach was actually, eventually closed. Explain that.
TOM MATHEWS: Yes, the breach was closed only after nearly 60 years. And it was closed when I invited him to take a trip back to Italy, where he had served with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II.
TERENCE SMITH: And to retrace –
TOM MATHEWS: And to retrace his old battles. I called him on the phone one day, and I said, “Look, why don’t we go back over the old battlefields where you spent the six months before you came home and started to drive me crazy.” And he said, “That’s a great idea.”
TERENCE SMITH: So you did. What was that trip like?
TOM MATHEWS: It was a transforming trip. We were deeply suspicious of each other when we started, and when we finished, we made peace.
TERENCE SMITH: And why was it necessary? What was it closing over those years that hadn’t been discussed or that could never have been discussed before?
TOM MATHEWS: My father always had a secret, it seemed to me, and he would never talk about World War II. He also had a code of honor which was a refusal to talk about World War II. So to me, he was remote, moody. His mood shifted. He was a heavy drinker. And we just couldn’t reach each other for our entire lives. And I began to think that that might have something to do with what happened to him in World War II.
TERENCE SMITH: And since you write about nine other fathers and sons and the impact of the war, you found that this experience, your experience, wasn’t really unique.
TOM MATHEWS: Yes, in the beginning I thought it was just me, just me and my father. But when I started to do the reporting on the book and just started to follow my own nose, time after time I ran into other people whose experience was almost the same.
TERENCE SMITH: This tendency of World War II veterans not to talk about this code of silence, what explains that? What was behind that?
TOM MATHEWS: Well, there were several things. I didn’t understand it until it was explained to me by Louie Simpson, who is a poet and one of the men in this chapter. He explained to me things that he could never explain to his own son and that is — that my father had never been able to explain to me. There is something in the nature of combat. A man who goes into combat never comes back the same man that he was before. I didn’t understand this. This is universally true, and I failed to understand that.
TERENCE SMITH: But not all the stories are as difficult, as contentious as yours, your own family story. But every relationship, every father-and-son relationship, was affected.
TOM MATHEWS: That’s right. The common denominator was this mysterious secret and a reluctance to talk about it. The best father was Private Edgar Person, who ran the hardware store next to me. He was an ideal father. I would love to have had him as my own father.
He never talked to his son about the war until the last summer of his life, when his son found him going over an old photo album and pointing to a picture of an empty field in France, and saying, “60 men died in that field,” and breaking into tears. It was the first time Bob Person had ever seen his father cry. So even with the people, with the best relationships, something was going on under the surface.
TERENCE SMITH: And I guess there were moments, you write there were moments like that when you and your father went back and followed the route that he followed up Italy –
TOM MATHEWS: Yes, we retraced the march of the 10th Mountain Division. And at first, I think he thought this was going to be just the father-and-son outing. But by the second day, it became quite tense. We were sitting in a small cafe in Bagna di Lucca and all of a sudden, from nowhere, he leaned over and a great convulsion came up within him, and he broke into tears, and he said, “I killed so many people.
My God, I killed so many people.” And then he sobbed for just a minute, caught himself, and said, “I’ve never said that to anyone. I’ve never said that to myself.” And the secret came out, the code was cracked, and after that, we were able to talk and it transformed our lives.
TERENCE SMITH: In this book, you’re recounting the darker side of an era, the greatest generation that has been romanticized and covered in the last ten years to an extraordinary degree. I wonder why you think that is.
TOM MATHEWS: I came out of seeing “Saving Private Ryan” with a feeling that was a little different from other people. I came out saying, “How could it be that this group of young heroes could come home and be such lousy fathers?” Now, I was working from a sample of one. This was not scientific. It was just the beginning point.
But I feel very strongly that while we have done honor to the greatest generation, and while they deserved it, that we’ve only touched the surface of what went on within them and that we didn’t really understand the full nature of their sacrifice, which is what it cost them in their heart and soul in the moments that they were in combat. That to me is the most important thing.
TERENCE SMITH: And now, for record, the breach with that sample of one has been closed.
TOM MATHEWS: Not only with a sample of one, with the other nine, universally things came out very well when we worked our way through.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Tom Mathews, thank you very much. The book is “Our Fathers’ War: Growing up in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation.” Thank you.
TOM MATHEWS: Thank you, Terry.