Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam

Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam

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by Michael Takiff

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Brave Men, Gentle Heroes presents the honest, touching, and harrowing stories of men who served in World War II and of their sons who served in Vietnam — fathers and sons bonded as deeply by their experience in war as by blood.

Though World War II and Vietnam were vastly different — the clear aims of World War II, the muddled goals of Vietnam;


Brave Men, Gentle Heroes presents the honest, touching, and harrowing stories of men who served in World War II and of their sons who served in Vietnam — fathers and sons bonded as deeply by their experience in war as by blood.

Though World War II and Vietnam were vastly different — the clear aims of World War II, the muddled goals of Vietnam; the hero's welcome accorded World War II veterans, the scorn heaped upon their sons — each defined a generation. In these pages you will find war's carnage and heroism, purpose and futility, meaning and tragic meaninglessness. Molded by the awful crucible of war, these seemingly ordinary men offer extraordinary insights into what it means to be a warrior, an American, a father, and a son.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
As Brave Men, Gentle Heroes reveals, there were indeed Vietnam vets who came home to welcoming friends and families, as well as World War II vets who suffered immeasurably from post-traumatic stress disorder. All of them are united by terrible acts of violence that the rest of us, as the author concedes, will never comprehend. But by sharing the deeply personal accounts of these fathers and sons, Takiff reminds us "how far we can go -- by their pursuit not of glory but of honor, by their willingness to die for what they believed precious." — Victorino Matus
Library Journal
Takiff, an actor and freelance writer, has compiled a compelling oral history about two seminal wars in which Americans fought. In an original approach, he uses interviews from 19 pairs of fathers and sons who served in World War II and the Vietnam War, respectively. Organizing the material ingeniously around the "chronology" of war-from joining the service to combat and the wars' legacies-Takiff cuts from fathers to sons and back. Each of the men experienced very different wars-different times, places, assignments, and public acceptance-but we learn that they had much in common, too, especially the brute fact that in war "the bottom line is to destroy other human lives." Growing out of Takiff's curiosity about his own father's World War II experiences, this cross-generational approach is clearly an idea whose time has come, and Takiff carries it off extremely well. Although perhaps a bit too long, this work is a major contribution to the history of these two distinct and influential wars. Recommended for all libraries.-Anthony Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A superb oral history of two generations at war—sometimes with each other. For readers of Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July or Lewis Puller Jr.’s Fortunate Son, it won’t come as a surprise that the Americans who fought in WWII and Vietnam often saw their missions in radically different ways. Takiff has done a very smart thing in pairing and playing off the remembrances of veterans of both conflicts, and in that alone, this would do Studs Terkel proud. He adds yet more by focusing on father-and-son veterans, some of whom, nearly 30 years after the second war ended, have trouble talking about their experiences with each other, if less so with the interviewer. Where Gene Camp, a WWII veteran who was also one of the earliest American fighters in Vietnam, rails against the "all the liberals barking and carrying on" and "the people back here . . . protesting and making speeches and running to Canada," his infantry captain son Greg says quietly, "I was young and naive and very patriotic. Now I would say we got into Vietnam for lots of reasons, but it wasn’t the sort of overarching, noble reason that I had thought. . . . It was like throwing good money after bad." Even fathers and sons who more or less agree on the flawed nature of the Vietnam misadventure find difficulty in speaking in these pages. But speak they do, to each other and to the world, often eloquently, often quite movingly. To all their conversations Takiff adds a smart introduction and running commentary that addresses all the "well-rehearsed generalizations" we’ve long heard about both wars, reminding his readers that plenty of WWII vets returned with PTSD, plenty of Vietnam vets returned normal, and plenty ofcommentators have erred in thinking we won WWII just because we were the good guys and lost Vietnam because we were—well, something else. An impressive and thoughtful contribution, and one that will be of considerable interest to both veterans and students of America’s wars. (Starred Review)

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Brave Men, Gentle Heroes
American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam

Chapter One

"His death affected me greatly."

Mike Novosel Sr.


From June 1944 to March 1945, American B-29s, known as Superfortresses, carried out daylight precision bombing raids over Japan with little success. High winds at thirty thousand feet, as well as Japanese fighter planes and antiaircraft artillery, frustrated American efforts to cripple Japanese war production.

On March 9 over three hundred B-29s of Major General Curtis E. LeMay's XXI Bomber Command tried a different tactic. Flying at low altitude to avoid the jet stream, flying at night to minimize the effectiveness of enemy flak and fighters, the bombers carpeted Tokyo with 1,665 tons of incendiaries. Although the targeting was anything but precise, it did not need to be: Factories were dispersed throughout the city, and in the process of setting the city on fire, the bombers laid waste to twenty-two major industrial facilities. Even so, disrupting Japanese manufacturing was not the sole purpose of the attack; American war planners intended it also to convey to the empire's population the price of continuing resistance. The signal sent was a horrific one: As many as a hundred thousand people died as a result of that one night of bombing. A quarter of a million buildings were destroyed.

Night incendiary bombings continued through March, and then in April, emboldened by new complements of P-51 fighter escort aircraft, LeMay instituted nighttime and daylight raids that dropped a carefully prepared mix of ordnance -- as Michael J. Novosel Sr., a pilot of one of the attacking B-29s, explains. The raids continued into August, halted only by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the resultant Japanese surrender.

Generally, presidential inaugural speeches are made on January 20 and then forgotten on the twenty-first. But I didn't forget John F. Kennedy's.

Kennedy was a political breath of fresh air. True, he was a politician, but he was of my generation. If you were one of the voters of that time, you saw the change that he was trying to bring about -- a change in attitude, a change in doing things. I just liked what he stood for.

"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans" -- that's what I mean: that torch was now given to us, not the old fogeys; we're the new youngsters in charge of this country -- "a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage -- and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world."

And I often want to say in addition that our generation was reared in the crucible of the Great Depression. I wish he had mentioned that. The Depression was great training -- great training in survival and in getting along -- for winning that damn war. Everybody that fought in World War II was the product of the Great Depression.

I was born in '22. I was not materially affected by the Depression, but I saw all around me what it did. I lived in Etna, Pennsylvania, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh. My father had his own business there: He was a shoemaker. He was born in Croatia and had learned his trade as an apprentice in Vienna. He prospered during the thirties because people were not buying shoes, they were repairing them. The people during that Great Depression would never think of throwing a pair of shoes away just because there was a hole in it.

Because we were able to sustain ourselves in quite a nice way, I wouldn't even think about missing a meal. But my mother, who was also from Croatia, always made it known at lunchtime that there was an extra bowl of soup for whoever was hungry. We knew people were hungry -- we saw people living in tar-paper shacks on the edge of town. So every day someone would come to the door. But only one. There would never be a clamoring -- "Hey, you gave him something, how about me?" Nothing like that. We were disciplined in those days.

The Depression welded us together. We knew that we were all in the same boat. Sure, some of us may have had a dollar or two more than our neighbor, but we didn't gloat about it. You knew you had to cooperate to get along. And this I found to extend right into the service life. The cohesiveness of a unit is amplified when people are out to help one another, not stab one another.

I made my first model airplane at the age of twelve. There were two of us that worked together on this -- Louis Duderstadt, a good German friend of mine, and I. I must have made a dozen or more with him. He always completed his before I completed mine, but his were not as fancy-looking and not as detailed as mine would be. I think the models cost us a dime. It was the rubber-band variety. Later on, my younger brother and I actually made a trainer in our cellar. When I say a "trainer," it certainly had no engine. But it was an airplane we made out of wood that had movable ailerons and movable rudders, and we would pretend that we were flying this thing. He became a pilot, too. He flew P-51s in World War II, when I was flying the bombers.

My father was successful in that we were never hungry and always had a nice home to live in. But he was not wealthy enough to afford the Pennsylvania higher-educational system ...

Brave Men, Gentle Heroes
American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam
. Copyright © by Michael Takiff. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Michael Takiff is a Yale graduate whose writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. He is the son of a World War II veteran and lives in New York City with his wife and son.

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Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is not a book that I would normally have picked up at the bookstore but the beautiful cover drew my interest and the photographs inside made me curious to learn more about the men who were the subjects of these interviews. Michael Takiff lets these men tell their stories of fear and camaraderie, destruction and struggle, family and the return to regular life in a way that brings these men to life. The brief overview of the historical situation at the time helps put the soldiers and their memories in context. Some chapters are painful to read but in these scary times it was reassuring to be reminded how courageous people can be in very very tough situations far from home. I found this book compelling and elegantly written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure that 'enjoyed' is the right word to use to describe my feelings for 'Brave Men'. It's a powerful book that tells this story like no other book that I have read. It has caused me to think about my service experience in different ways and has given me a new and different awareness of the long term effect of combat on the men that survived that experience.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Brave Men, Gentle Heroes' bridges the differences between WWII and Vietnam by having father and son veterans describe the similarities of their experiences, both during and after the wars. For all the differences in their wars, support at home, reasons for being at war, the similarities are striking. Realistic, poignant, page-turner.