Troubled Homecoming

Historian Thomas Childers explores the complicated reality of the Greatest Generation's return from World War II.
June 1, 2009

Tom Brokaw’s popular book, The Greatest Generation, suggests that survivors among the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II came home and “joined in joyous and short-lived celebrations, then immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted.” The reality historian Thomas Childers documents in his book Soldier from the War Returning is far more complicated—and painful. “Wars are not clean or neat,” he writes, “and neither is their aftermath.” As veterans returned from defeating the Nazis and Imperial Japan, a common refrain from family, friends and neighbors was taken up across the country: “He was never the same after the war.”

Childers is the Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History and an internationally recognized expert on the Third Reich and the Second World War. Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II is the third book of a trilogy on themes related to the war. The first titles in the series are Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II and In the Shadows of War: An American Pilot’s Odyssey Through Occupied France. Like his previous books, this newest work uses a novelistic approach to tell intimate, fine-grained stories about ordinary men caught up in the history-making events of their day. Literary devices, Childers says, “illuminate the events, emotions and experiences of the Second World War through the lives of human beings.”

"What emerges from these stories is a darker, more troubled—but also more human—tale than the one that emanates from today’s memorials." - Thomas Childers

Many of the Americans returning to civilian life following “the good war” found it impossible to leave behind. Brokaw’s “jaunty, feel-good stories,” Childers writes, have “become our public memory of the war and its aftermath, a quasi-official transcript of events that glide sentimentally over what for many veterans was a deeply troubled reentry into a civilian world that, like themselves, had undergone dramatic change.”

Many soldiers were maimed. Some had watched buddies die, and some had become killers themselves. Most had been away from families and friends for years. Unemployment for returning veterans in 1947 was triple the rate for civilians, and large numbers were living with a family member—or in barns, trailers and even cars. Two years after the war, half the patients in VA medical facilities were psychiatric casualties, and classic symptoms of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder—depression, rages, nightmares, survivor guilt, anxiety—could be seen on Main Streets across the country. The brunt of suffering from these “invisible wounds” fell on family members and played out in parlors, kitchens and bedrooms. Between 1945 and 1947, America underwent a “divorce boom,” with veterans divorcing twice as often as civilians.

Childers approaches this post-war data by telling the stories of three men and their families, including his parents, Tom and Mildred Childers, both now deceased. The richly told tales are based on extensive interviews and are augmented with letters, oral histories, newspaper accounts, government documents, opinion polls and other scholarly analysis. The “readjustment” of these soldiers and their families lasted a lifetime and no doubt still reverberates in the lives of their children. “What emerges from these stories is a darker, more troubled—but also more human—tale than the one that emanates from today’s memorials,” Childers writes. They “suggest that the price these men paid was far higher, the toll exacted from them and their families far greater, and their struggles far more protracted than the glossy tributes to the Greatest Generation would have us believe.”