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A son, his dying father, and the man who dropped the bomb

Book cover

Columnist explores the generation that won the war

June 6, 2000
Web posted at: 11:34 a.m. EDT (1534 GMT)

'Duty: A Father, His Son and the Man Who Won the War'
by Bob Greene
(William Morrow & Co.)

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- Americans who endured the Great Depression and won World War II have been memorialized as "The Greatest Generation." They have shared their stories about "The Good War." Authors Tom Brokaw and Studs Terkel have collected their reminiscences to provide a mosaic of memories that, taken together, help readers understand the wide scope of experience their lives have embraced.

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Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene has a different approach to that generation of Americans. Instead of an epic account drawing on a large number of memories, he tells just two stories. The result is his new book "Duty: A Father, His Son and the Man Who Won the War."

The father is his own. Bob Greene Sr. was an infantry officer who marched the length of Italy during the war. The son is the author, who is trying to understand what his father must have been like before Bob Greene Jr. was born. The man who won the war is Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay on its mission to drop the first atomic bomb.

When the younger Green first met Tibbets, the elder Greene was on a long downward spiral toward death at his Columbus, Ohio, home. Tibbets had lived in the town for many years, but his path had never crossed that of the Greene family. Bob Greene, the newspaperman, pursued an interview with the retired general. He was looking for a story; what he found was a connection to his own father.

A 'safety net' removed

Bob Greene and Paul Tibbets
Bob Greene and Paul Tibbets  

Greene is honest about what he felt as he watched his father's decline. "For me," he writes, "as my father, day by day, slipped away, the overwhelming feeling was that a safety net was being removed -- a safety net that had been there since the day I was born, a safety net I was often blithely unaware of. That's what the best safety nets do -- they allow you to forget they're there. No generation has ever given its children a sturdier and more reliable safety net than the one our parents' generation gave us."

At the same time, Greene was getting to know Tibbets who, like his father, was in his 80s. Like his father, Tibbets had taken part in the grandest undertaking of their generation. Unlike his father, Tibbets was still healthy, alert and able to answer questions -- such as Greene's initial queries about the A-bomb raid on Hiroshima.

History's voice

The answers were plain-spoken, matter-of-fact. "It's not that the tone of his voice was without animation," Greene writes of Tibbets, "and certainly not that it was devoid of feeling; what struck me is that the voice of history does not have to sound historic, that history has usually been built by people with voices that sound not so much different from your neighbor's, or your eye doctor's."

After his father died, Greene would ask Tibbets more penetrating questions. He wanted to know how it felt to be in that war, to be of that age, to be among that generation that emerged from its trials with valor and with vigor. In short, he wanted to understand his father.

"Duty" is in many ways Greene's tribute to his late father. It is heartfelt and touching. It's filled with moments -- many of them awkward, some of them illuminating, a few wryly humorous -- that are the essence of the father-son experience. "Duty" tells more than one story, or even two. In its way, it tells the story of all the fathers who lived through war and privation, then strove to build a good life for their children.

What Greene learned about his father took him on a personal journey. His book can serve as a guidepost to other sons of his generation, as they journey to discover their own fathers.

56 years later, U.S. National D-Day Museum opens
June 5, 2000
Japanese mark Hiroshima anniversary
August 6, 1999
The Greatest Generation
January 20, 1999
Hiroshima survivors warn against using nuclear weapons
June 15, 1998
CNN In-Depth Special: Ground Zero: The nuclear question

HarperCollins - William Morrow

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