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Tom Brokaw, NBC News anchor and author of the best-selling book "The Greatest Generation"
A 'family portrait of the greatest generation'

Brokaw shares the stories of a generation of heroes

Web posted on: Wednesday, January 20, 1999 3:15:27 PM

ATLANTA (CNN) -- For Tom Brokaw, America is filled with thousands of gray-haired heroes who once "answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled." They are the men and women who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, and went on to build modern America.

In his best-selling book "The Greatest Generation," the "NBC Nightly News" anchor tells the story of that generation.

"At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific," Brokaw writes, or they were back home in the United States working and striving to produce the weapons required to win the war.

World War II has been the subject of several projects recently, including the films "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line"

'Success on every front'

His praise is heavy, but he knows that there were shortcomings. "This was not a perfect generation," he says. "They made mistakes along the way -- they let racism go on too long. They were too slow to respond to the place of women in our society. But taken collectively they came out of a very difficult time -- the Depression, when economically there was so little hope in this country," and they succeeded on every front.

The publication of "The Greatest Generation" comes during a period of national reflection about World War II, with last year's inspiring movie "Saving Private Ryan" and, most recently, the film "The Thin Red Line." But the stories Brokaw relates really happened, and they are told by the people who were there.

And once the war ended, Brokaw says, the accomplishments of this generation had only begun.

"They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted," he writes. "They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. A grateful nation made it possible for more of them to attend college than any society had ever educated, anywhere. They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history.

Read an excerpt from "The Greatest Generation"

Modest builders of a nation

"As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest," he says. "They have so many stories to tell, stories that in many cases they have never told before, because in a deep sense they didn't think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too.

"This book, I hope, will in some small way pay tribute to those men and women who have given us the lives we have today -- an American family portrait album of the greatest generation," he says.

Brokaw says the discovery of the many heroic stories -- told by people who were teen-agers or, at most, in their 20s at the time -- prompted him to take stock of his own achievements.

"It does make me think more about the kind of legacy that I want to leave when I get through with my own life. It's not just that 'He was on television,' or that 'He made a lot of money,' or that 'He got to go to Montana in the summertime.' Is there something else in the character of Tom Brokaw? I think that's something we should all examine."

'I was deeply moved'

Brokaw was a young child when World War II occurred. He lived on a military base and watched as adults all around him took part in the war effort. He later graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in political science, and began his journalism career in Omaha, Nebraska, and Atlanta. He joined NBC News in 1966, and was the network's White House correspondent during Watergate. From 1976 to 1981 he anchored "Today on NBC," and he's been the sole anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw" since 1983.

He grew up knowing the achievements of his parents' generation, but as he covered the 40th anniversary of the allied landing at Normandy, France, in 1984, he began to see -- and hear -- the true extent of their accomplishments.

"As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had returned for this anniversary, men in their sixties and seventies, and listened to their stories, I was deeply moved and profoundly grateful for all they had done," Brokaw writes in his book. "Ten years later, I returned to Normandy for the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, and by then I had come to understand what this generation of Americans meant to history.

"It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced."

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