"I was ten years old when [World War II] ended," Stephen Ambrose once said. "I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so." Years after he first watched combat footage in the newsreels, the popular historian brought fresh attention to America's aging WWII veterans through such bestselling books as Band of Brothers, about a company of U.S. paratroopers, and The Wild Blue, about the B-24 bomber pilots who flew over Germany. Though best known for his books on World War II, Ambrose also produced multi-volume biographies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, a history of the building of the transcontinental railroad, and a fascinating account of the Lewis and Clark expedition across the American West.
As a young professor of history, Ambrose was one of many left-wing academics who spoke out against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet he revered the veterans of World War II, and he interviewed and wrote about them at a time when many of his colleagues considered military history old-fashioned. "The men I admire most are soldiers, sailors, professional military," Ambrose would later tell The Washington Post. "Way more than politicians."
He labored without much popular acclaim or academic renown until 1994, when his book D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II burst onto the bestseller lists. War heroism was suddenly a hot topic, and Ambrose's approach, which focused on the experiences of soldiers rather than the decisions of high command, was perfectly suited to a popular audience. More bestsellers followed, including Citizen Soldiers, The Victors and Undaunted Courage. Ambrose's vivid narrative accounts were devoured by readers and praised by critics. "The descriptions of individual ordeals on the bloody beach of Omaha make this book outstanding," wrote Raleigh Trevelyan in a New York Times review of D-Day.
Ambrose retired as a professor of history at the University of New Orleans in 1995, but he continued to write one or more books per year. He also founded the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, worked with his family-owned business organizing historical tours, and served as the historical consultant for the 1998 Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg later turned Ambrose's Band of Brothers into an HBO miniseries.
This rise to fame was accompanied by criticism from some of Ambrose's fellow historians, who charged that he could be careless in his research and editing. In early 2002, he faced accusations of plagiarism when reporters noted that a number of phrases and sentences in his books were lifted from other works. Ambrose responded that he had forgotten to place quotation marks around some quotes, but said he had footnoted all his sources. "I always thought plagiarism meant using another person's words and ideas, pretending they were your own and profiting from it. I do not do that, never have done that and never will," he wrote in a statement on his Web site.
When he was diagnosed with lung cancer a few months later, he began work on a memoir, To America. "I want to tell all the things that are right about America," he said in an interview with the Associated Press. Ambrose died in October 2002, at the age of 66.
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Ambrose was a star football player at the University of Wisconsin and played in the Rose Bowl, according to his friend and co-author Douglas Brinkley.
As a college sophomore, Ambrose abandoned his pre-med major for history after he attended a class on "Representative Americans" taught by professor William Hesseltine.
For more than 20 years, Ambrose and his family spent their vacations traveling portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail. They canoed the Missouri and Columbia rivers, endured soaking rains and summer snowstorms, and read from the explorers' journals at night by the light of their campfires.
Ambrose named his house in Mississippi "Merry Weather," after Meriwether Lewis. His Labrador was called Pomp, after the nickname of Sacagawea's son.
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|Stephen E. Ambrose Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
|Stephen E. Ambrose Movies
|Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff, 1962|
|Upton and the Army, 1964|
|Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point, 1966|
|Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945: The Decision to Halt at the Elbe, 1967|
|The Supreme Commander: The War Years of Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1970|
|Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, 1975|
|Ike's Spies: Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment, 1981|
|Milton S. Eisenhower: Educational Statesman (coauthor), 1983|
|Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952, 1983|
|Eisenhower: Soldier and President, 1985|
|Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944, 1985|
|Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, Vol. 1, 1987|
|Nixon: The Truimph of a Politician, 1962-1972, 1989|
|Nixon: The Ruin and Recovery of a Politician, 1973-1990, 1991|
|Band of Brothers, 1992|
|D-Day, June 6, 1944, 1994|
|Undaunted Courage, 1996|
|The American Heritage New History of World War II, 1997|
|Citizen Soldiers, 1997|
|Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938 (coauthor), 1997|
|Americans at War , 1997|
|The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II, 1998|
|Lewis and Clark: Voyage of Discovery (Bicentennial Edition) (coauthor), 1998|
|Witness to America: An Illustrated Documentary History of the United States from the Revolution to Today, 1999|
|Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals, 1999|
|Nothing Like It in the World , 2000|
|The Good Fight: How World War II Was Won, 2001|
|The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany, 2001|
|The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation (coauthor), 2002|
|To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, 2002|
|This Vast Land, 2003|