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Stephen E. Ambrose, 66; Author’s Work Brought WWII Vets Back to Americans’ Homes, Hearts

Times Staff Writer

Stephen E. Ambrose, the populist historian whose best-selling books made hometown heroes anew of America’s aging World War II veterans and provided modern insight into such leaders as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lewis and Clark, died Sunday. He was 66.

Ambrose, a longtime smoker, died of lung cancer in a Bay St. Louis, Miss., hospital near New Orleans. His family was with him.

“Steve ... didn’t write for intellectuals, he wrote for everyday people,” said Douglas Brinkley, one of Ambrose’s students who collaborated on several of Ambrose’s books and succeeded him as director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans.

A history teacher for much of his life, Ambrose became a best-selling author with his 1994 book, “D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.”

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He also wrote “Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest,” the basis of a successful cable television series co-directed by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Ambrose was advisor on Spielberg’s blockbuster World War II film “Saving Private Ryan” starring Hanks and his documentary “Price for Peace.” Neither Spielberg nor Hanks could be reached for comment Sunday.

A prolific writer who became a cottage industry planning historic tours, creating museums and memorials, and giving lectures, Ambrose only quickened his pace when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in April.

“After I got through the shock, the outrage, the how-can-this-be-happening, I got to thinking: Screw it,” he told The Times in May. “In the time I’ve got left I’m going to write my love song.”

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As he rose at 4 a.m. to rush to his word processor through the summer, he planned to title the book “A Love Song to America.” Bristling at the suggestion it might be his memoir, he described it as part interpretive history, part recollection and part grandfatherly musing. The final product, “To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian,” is scheduled for release Nov. 19.

That will be Ambrose’s 36th book.

When charges of plagiarism--specifically that he failed to use quotation marks and misplaced footnotes on scattered passages in his many books--arose last winter, the gravel-voiced, martini-swilling, swashbuckling historian simply ignored the headlines. He went off to the Philippines to research World War II battles for a book he planned but did not live to write on the Pacific theater of the war.

“The people decide,” he told The Times in April when he visited Washington, D.C., to lobby for funds for a Lewis and Clark commemoration as the 200th anniversary of their expedition approaches. “If they decide I’m a fraud, I’m a fraud. I don’t know that I’m all that good at academics. I’m a writer.”

Ambrose discounted the criticism as jealousy from academic colleagues, not only because of his fame and fortune from his books but from his choice of historic research.

“I always had a hard time because I did military history,” he said in April. “They want you to teach about gays and lesbians in the Colonial period.”

There are ironies to how Ambrose, self-described storyteller, came to be a scholar and admirer of the military. He considered himself a new left instructor on America’s wrongs, including its historic treatment of Native Americans, neglect of the environment and motivation for the Mexican-American War. A ponytail-wearing liberal, he marched in protest of the Vietnam War. And he quit a teaching job at Kansas State University to protest a campus visit from Richard Nixon during the bombings of Laos and Cambodia.

Yet the doctor’s son from Whitewater, Wis., was a hero-worshiper of the returning World War II soldiers from the time he was 10, watching them attend the local teachers’ college on the GI Bill.

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“I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world form barbarism,” Ambrose said recently. “I still do.”

He played football at the University of Wisconsin and likened the game to military strategy. Once equipped with his doctorate in history, he began studying details of the U.S. Civil War.

World War II became Ambrose’s focus in 1963 when its General-cum-President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him to edit his papers and write his biography. How had a 27-year-old obscure history teacher at the University of New Orleans attracted Ike’s attention? Eisenhower was impressed with Ambrose’s 1962 book--only his second one published--on Henry Halleck, Abraham Lincoln’s all-but-forgotten chief of staff.

Interviewing the great general for hours on end and poring over bundles of wartime correspondence riveted Ambrose to the war of his boyhood. Ambrose not only helped produce “The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Vols. 1-5" in 1967, but also wrote eight more books about the Abilene, Kan., boy who grew up to be general, allied supreme commander and president.

Aside from the work with Ike, however, Ambrose focused not on the military brass but on the “citizen soldiers.”

Ambrose collected thousands of oral histories from the men who fought the war, and famously never talked about it when they came home to rebuild normal lives. Ambrose, who also tramped the European battlefields and routes they described, deposited the precious material in the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the New Orleans university where he taught until 1995.

He not only got the taciturn heroes to share memories they had tried to bury forever, but he instilled such confidence in the men he interviewed that they gave him artifacts they had saved from the World War II battlefields. In 1999, he opened the D-Day Museum in New Orleans’ Warehouse District to display the collected trove.

“More than anybody else in America,” Gordon H. ‘Nick’ Mueller, president of the museum, told The Times a few months ago, “he [Ambrose] opened these guys up to talking about their experiences. He’s unlocked thousands of stories that would have been lost forever.”

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Ambrose occasionally diverted his attention to other phases of history, writing “Crazy Horse and Custer,” “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Owning of the American West,” “Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery” and “Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869.” Those books sprang from Ambrose’s love of the West and summer vacations spent with his family and students retracing the Lewis and Clark Trail and other avenues of expansion history.

He even resolved his feelings about Nixon enough to write three books about the distinct phases of the ousted president’s life: “Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962,” “Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972,” and “Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990.”

But Ambrose always returned to World War II. Among his books on the era were “Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945,” “The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys, the Men of World War II,” “Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals,” and “The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany.”

Ambrose lent his name and his expertise to his son Andy’s travel company, Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours, which led excursions to Civil War battlefields, Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, and along the Missouri River.

Recognized everywhere he went, Ambrose easily befriended war veterans, readers, celebrities and politicians and presidents of both parties. President Clinton gave him the National Humanities Medal in 1998.

Asked in April whom he considered his peers, Ambrose replied easily “Doris and David.” He referred to Doris Kearns Goodwin, another popular historian who was involved in a plagiarism controversy, and David McCullough, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography “John Adams.”

They share Ambrose’s ability to make history not only readable but entertaining and exciting.

“His great gift,” Brinkley said of Ambrose, “was that he refused to allow people to think history was boring. He was always grabbing people by their lapels and saying, ‘Listen to this. Isn’t this fascinating?’ ”

Arthur Schlesinger, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, agreed, telling the Associated Press that Ambrose “combined high standards of scholarship with the capacity to make history come alive for a lay audience.”

Ambrose is survived by his wife, Moira, and five children, Andy, Barry, Hugh, Grace and Stephenie.


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