Discovering My Grandfather’s Secret World War II Legacy

Wes Tooke, the screenwriter of the new movie Midway, on finding out a crucial and revelatory part of his family's history.

As usual, I was looking the wrong direction. I was writing Midway, a movie about the Battle of Midway – a critical clash between the Japanese and American fleets during World War II – and I thought that my personal connection to the project came from my paternal grandfather. He was a Navy Captain who went to Annapolis with several of the characters in our film and likely helped design the hull of the aircraft carrier at the center of the story.

Keean Johnson and Ed Skrein in Midway. (Photo by Reiner Bajo.)

But everything changed a few months ago. My mother was watching a 60 Minutes segment about Ben Ferencz, a lawyer who prosecuted the Nazis for war crimes at Nuremberg. A photo flashed across the screen featuring Ben in his Army uniform with his arm around a familiar figure – her father. My mother stared at the television, stunned. And suddenly a new chapter opened in our family history.

My maternal grandfather’s name was Robert Briggs. All we knew about his service during the war was that he had enlisted as a private, but at some point the had Army discovered he was a lawyer and pulled him out of his unit to work for General Patton. After Germany surrendered, he returned to his home south of Boston, where he worked as a small-town lawyer and cranberry farmer.

My grandfather never talked about his service. When he died 20 years ago, I delivered a eulogy at his funeral, and described him as a quiet and unbelievably decent man. But in the wake of that 60 Minutes episode, it became clear that we had always been missing something. We finally understood why he’d never talked about his time in the Army.

A World War II-era shot featuring Ben Ferencz (far left) and Robert Briggs (middle left).

My mother took the lead in trying to track down his wartime experiences. Ben Ferencz is still alive, and she managed to track him down in Florida. “Briggsy!” Ben said after my mother mentioned his name. “Of course I remember him.” Ferencz told my mother that he and my grandfather were both Harvard Law School graduates who decided to enter the Army as privates rather than going through the officer training corps. They were assigned to an anti-aircraft artillery unit and sent to France immediately after D-Day. During the Battle of the Bulge, the situation apparently got so dire that they were handed rifles and put onto the line.

When the horrific scope of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity was becoming apparent, the U.S. Army assigned Ferencz to a special detachment to collect evidence of the atrocities. Ferencz quickly realized that he needed more help, and therefore recruited my grandfather to work with him.

Robert Briggs (left) with Marlene Dietrich.

And so for the rest of the war, my grandfather – a trust and estates lawyer by training – was one of the first people through the wires of the liberated PoW and concentration camps. Often he and his team would arrive while the crematoriums were still smoking and everything reeked of death. Their job was to collect first-hand evidence of the worst of humanity, and they diligently seized millions of files and conducted countless interviews.

After the war, the United States and its allies intended to prosecute only the senior Nazi leadership, but Ferencz and his team pushed back – they believed it would be setting a dangerous precedent if the people who carried out the horrific orders were not prosecuted also. My grandfather was back in his small town by the time the Nuremberg trials began, but the evidence he’d uncovered would ultimately be part of the prosecution of 200 Nazis and the establishment of the theory of “crimes against peace and humanity.” (Another odd coincidence: Years ago, I helped research and edit a book about the Nuremberg trials, completely oblivious that my grandfather had played a key role.)

The revelations about my grandfather’s wartime life recontextualized everything my family knew about him. It was suddenly obvious why he had never wanted to return to Europe for a vacation, and the mundane letters that he’d written to my grandmother during the war also made sense. He didn’t avoid talking about what he was doing because of the censors; he was trying to keep that terrible poison from infecting his home. And when he got back, of course, my grandfather never saw a psychologist or talked about PTSD. He just went back to his law practice and his cranberry bogs.

Men at war: Ben Ferencz is bottom right and Robert Briggs bottom left.

I have been asked many times during interviews for Midway why the story is relevant to audiences today. I have many answers: this is arguably the greatest comeback story in military history, key aspects of the battle have never been told, and VFX technology has finally made it possible to put viewers in the shoes of the real-life heroes who faced unimaginable danger.

But the deeper answer is that every generation faces its own great challenges, and we live in a moment when we are being asked difficult questions. Populism and nationalism are on the rise, and our democratic institutions are being challenged in new ways. The Greatest Generation was far from perfect – the Navy that fought at Midway was a segregated institution, for example – but ultimately I think that my grandfather’s story was emblematic. His generation fought to keep the world from descending into darkness, and when the battle was over they did their best not to bring the trauma home.

It’s impossible to predict what the next years might bring us all, but as both a storyteller and a citizen, I find myself continually looking to the past for inspiration. After all, who knows what you might find right underneath your nose.

Wes Tooke is the writer of Midway, out November 8. He previously served as a writer/executive producer on USA Network’s drama Colony and co-executive producer of Amazon’s comedy Jean-Claude Van Johnson, and he currently has multiple film and television projects in development. In addition to his work in Hollywood, Tooke is also the author of Ballpark Blues (Doubleday, 2003) and two young adult novels, Lucky (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and King of the Mound (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Ballpark Blues earned a Kirkus starred review and both of the young adult novels were Junior Library Guild selections.