When asked how I came to write "The Greatest Generation," I recount a trip to Normandy in 1984. I went there to produce a documentary on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. I had looked forward to a week of stirring stories, evenings of oysters and Calvados, and long runs through the countryside.
Instead, from the moment I stepped onto Omaha Beach with two veterans of the First Division I had an out-of-body experience. Geno Merli, who earned the Medal of Honor, and Harry Garton, who lost both legs in combat, landed in the first wave at Omaha. Working-class products from Pennsylvania, they were soft-spoken and matter-of-fact as they described for me the horrors of that day and all the fighting that was yet to come.
Listening to them I was transported back to my childhood in the Great Plains during the '40s and '50s. In the heartland, men like Geno and Harry were always on call to help a neighbor overhaul a car, build a fence, sponsor a baseball team or Boy Scout troop.
Along with their wives they were always volunteering, organizing potluck suppers and bake sales to support community projects. They knew the price of every piece of produce and every cut of meat in the local supermarket. And most families I knew had war bonds tucked away to go with the savings account at the hometown bank.
As I began to write the wartime accounts of that generation, I realized how much they were formed by the deprivations and lessons of the Great Depression. During that period life was about common sacrifice and going without the most ordinary items, such as enough food or new clothes. ...
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