World War II's Effect on a Generation of Men

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Tom Mathews

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Tom Mathews' father was a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. His book, Our Fathers' War, explores how the conflict affected filial relations for the men who served.

Linda Wertheimer talks with Mathews about the book, which combines his own story with those of nine others whose sons were indelibly marked by their fathers' experience as soldiers.

Excerpt from Chapter One

My father hated war stories. He was a soldier with a code, a brave man who wouldn't talk about World War II. For a long time after the war, he could only bring himself to tell one story, and that one happened to him on the day he got home. He was crossing the Rockies in a troop train, safely out of the Apennines, glad to be alive. When his train reached Helper, Utah, it stopped to pick up a booster locomotive for the steep haul over the mountains to Salt Lake City. The sun was just coming up, and hundreds of soldiers were still dozing in their seats. Suddenly, just beyond the windows, the dawn erupted in rifle shots, shotgun blasts and pistol fire. The Japanese had surrendered and every man in Helper was shooting up the sky.

No one had bothered to tell the soldiers. Aboard the train every man in uniform hit the floor. If you were a civilian, you might actually believe that World War II was over; if you had seen combat, it would never be over: you would carry it for the rest of your life, wired into your soul and central nervous system. Within Lieutenant Thomas Richard Mathews every synapse was still sparking that day as a Union Pacific Challenger coupled itself to the troop train and started to roll, shoving its load of stout-hearted men up the last grade and over Soldier's Summit, delivering them home to be fathers.

Now, on this hot August day in 1945, it's a few hours later.

On the far side of the mountains, Thomas Richard Mathews, Jr. is getting ready for inspection. It's the afternoon before my second birthday. Dressed for a double celebration in clean white shirt, short pants, and scuffed Buster Brown shoes, I am perched on the roof of a garage behind a small brick house on Mill Creek, the safe holding lie where my mother and I have spent the final months of the war. The idea is to get a good look at my father without getting too close too soon. My observation post isn't really a garage, but I don't know that yet. Topping out at about three feet tall, I'm still short on inches and nouns: to me, if a building has a front door and it isn't a house, it must be a garage. I'm also a little vague about the nature of this inspection, not quite sure which of us is on display. All I know is that the war, whatever that is, has ended; a uniform, whatever one looks like, will be on my father; and my father, whatever a father might be, is just about to appear.

"Today's the day, Tommy Two! Today's the day!"

Just few minutes earlier, my mother had sung her small fanfare as she picked me up and waltzed me across the kitchen of our dark basement apartment. Her joy made me frown. My father and I both have the same name; we are both first sons, alphas to the max; and although I'm still working on my milk teeth, sharing my mother with anyone bigger than me isn't part of my master plan. None of this I can put into words, of course, but what I am feeling obviously shows on my face.

"Don't you worry, Tee-Two," my mother says gaily, kissing my forehead. "You are my golden-haired boy."

I don't know what she's talking about — my hair is dark brown, long and curly — and now, more than a little suspicious, I'm on top of the garage waiting to get a good look at her soldier. I don't remember anything about the young rock climber and skier who shipped out with the 10th Mountain Division to fight the Germans in northern Italy. He left a few months after my first birthday. I never think about him. To tell the truth the only thing that piques my curiosity now is his uniform.

From the roof, I have a commanding view of our weedy backyard. Suddenly the door to our subterranean apartment flies open and my father steps out, blinking in the bright August sun. My first impression is this: he is huge. My second impression is that he is a man without a stomach, quite different from my grandfather, whose web suspenders strain against his friendly girth when he hauls himself into his Chrysler. My father is flat and hard where my grandfather is round and soft, and he is moving toward me at a very fast clip. Pulling up in front of the garage, he opens his arms.

"Jump."

I hesitate, study the distance between us. It is transcontinental. The drop to the ground appears to be 1,500 feet. Bottom of the Grand Canyon. Certain death.

"Jump."

Not possible. No, no, no. no, no.

"I said jump." The voice is harder now. But then, for just an instant, he appears to soften.

"It's okay, Tommy," he says. "I'm your father."

Am I supposed to fly? Does he think I'm a bird? Recoiling, I freeze to the roof.

The tanned face flushes. Then the soldier wheels abruptly and storms across the yard, plunging into the basement. For the rest of my life I will hear the screen door's sharp bang and the last thing he said before he turned his back and walked away.

"No son of mine is a coward."

From Our Fathers' War, copyright Tom Mathews. Excerpted with permission from Broadway Books.

Books Featured In This Story

Our Fathers' War

Growing Up in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation

by Tom Mathews

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