Rediscovering his father’s generation

Rediscovering his father’s generation

Kenneth T. Walsh

It was an extraordinary tribute, capturing the moment and infusing it with the cadence of history. “They may walk with a little less spring in their step, and their ranks are growing thinner,” President Clinton declared during last week’s 50th anniversary of D-Day, “but let us never forget: When they were young, these men saved the world.” Many of the old veterans assembled in Normandy wept unashamedly. But even more surprising than that uncommon sight was what happened among sons and daughters of the men and women who won World War II. They, too, were shedding tears.

The baby boomers, notorious for their self-importance, have nothing in their experience to compare with the selflessness their fathers displayed at places like Omaha Beach and their mothers showed on the home front. The me generation has always dreamed of creating a new world. As the D-Day celebrations made clear, their parents had already accomplished that remarkable mission before the first baby boomer was born.

In some fundamental ways, the enormous focus on the Normandy invasion piqued the baby boomers’ interest in their parents’ generation. Even the president discovered new details about his father, William Blythe, who served on the Italian front after the Allied landing at Anzio. Much of Blythe’s life has been a mystery to Clinton because he died in an automobile accident a few months before the future president was born. Now, family members have found letters Blythe sent during the war describing his experiences.

In fact, many baby boomers have never gotten a full picture of their parents’ lives because the older generation has a natural reticence to talk about itself. Certainly the men and women of World War II have never been comfortable with the self-congratulation so often practiced by their children. But thousands of veterans made an exception during the D-Day commemorations. Many strolled with their children along the beaches and atop the cliffs of Normandy. Reliving their fears and sorrows, they retraced their attack routes and pointed out where a friend had fallen. More than a few asked themselves the classic but unanswerable soldier’s question: Why him and not me?

In one compelling moment at Pointe-du-Hoc, Clinton walked awkwardly along the dizzying cliffs with Ken Bargmann, one of 224 Army rangers who stormed their way through barbed wire and machine-gun fire to capture a Nazi stronghold. The old soldier, his gentle face creased with a patient smile, explained to the young president exactly how he had scaled cliffs, pulling himself up hand over hand on ropes. He explained that it was no herculean feat, only a job that needed doing. Clinton’s eyes welled up. He managed only a weak smile at Bargmann’s son–a disabled Vietnam veteran– and placed his hand gently on the head of the old veteran’s grandson. The president felt, aides said later, that he could add nothing to the moment.

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