Chronicler of WWll succumbs to lung cancer at 66:
- Ambrose spent much of his career as a relatively little known history professor until he burst onto the best-seller’s list with his 1994 book “D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.”
Based in large part on interviews with veterans about their own combat experiences, the book recounted the chaotic, bloody beach invasions of Normandy from the typical American soldier’s perspective.
“He was saying, ‘There’s all this obsession with high command, but the real story is these citizen soldiers who still live in every town and hamlet in the United States,”‘ said Douglas Brinkly, a former pupil who took over for Ambrose as director of the University of New Orleans’ Eisenhower Center.
With unadorned but lively prose, Ambrose continued to captivate readers as he churned out history books at an industrial pace, publishing more than 30, including a half-dozen more best-sellers such as “Citizen Soldiers” and “The Wild Blue.”
He “combined high standards of scholarship with the capacity to make history come alive for a lay audience,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger said.
While best known for his World War II books and as the founder of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, Ambrose wrote about numerous aspects of American history. Other books addressed former Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, the Transcontinental Railroad and the Lewis and Clark expeditions of the American West.
“His great gift was that he refused to allow people to think history was boring,” said Brinkley, who also collaborated on several books with Ambrose. “He was always grabbing people by their lapels and saying, ‘Listen to this. Isn’t this fascinating?”‘
Ambrose, who called himself a hero worshipper, said his focus on World War II developed from working on his Eisenhower biography and his memory of GI’s returning home from World War II when he was 10 years old.
“I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so,” he once said.
For the most part, war veterans were eager to help Ambrose and entrusted many of the artifacts they had saved from World War II to the D-Day museum. The old soldiers seemed to relate well to the author, a plain-speaking man who got to the point and wasn’t afraid to mix in a few curse words for emphasis.
When Ambrose discovered he had lung cancer, he said the likely terminal diagnosis was in some respects liberating because “you can do whatever the hell you want. Who’s going to criticize you? And if they do, what the hell do you care?”
By the time he became ill, Ambrose’s snowballing success had grown into a dynamic family industry that ranged from top-dollar lectures to movie consulting and even historical tours run by one of his sons.
Ambrose’s film work included consulting roles in Steven Spielberg’s World War II block buster, “Saving Private Ryan,” and on the World War II documentary, “Price for Peace,” also directed by Spielberg….