Tag: WW2

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Planes

Saturday was World War 2 Heritage Days, an event in Peachtree City, GA honoring those who served in WW2. Veterans wear their uniforms or at least a hat to indicate their field of service.

NationalAnthem

My daughter travels around to various events, portraying Betty Grable, and let me tell you: she has the legs and the voice and the hair to pull it off. Years ago I bought a 1940s era dress just because I liked it. It’s hung in the closet since then, but on Saturday morning, I pulled it out and put it on, along with my black gloves, a 1940ish pocketbook, and the cutest hat you’ve ever seen, all topped off with shoes to die for (and by the end of the day, my feet almost had) (died, I mean). My hair is now too long to hold pin curls, and I didn’t know how to do victory rolls, so I decided I’d just tell the stitch nazis (women who delight in pointing out inadequacies and unauthenticies) to (a) bug off or (b) that I’d been out picking cotton that morning and simply hadn’t had time to do my hair. Thank goodness I didn’t hear from the stitch nazis, but I’ll have you know that three men asked me where I bought my dress. Not cross-dressers, mind you, just men who say they find shirtwaist dresses (accessorized with black gloves and a purse that snapped shut with an attitude) like mine sexier than today’s dresses. Here she is, my daughter, singing the national anthem.

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Later when she sings The Armed Forces Medley, veterans stand when she gets to the theme song for their branch of service. These fellas were able to name the song Anchors Away in three notes.

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This is my mother’s boyfriend, Walter, cheering as his song – Army Air Corps – ends. Loyalty runs deep.

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Speaking of loyalty, this is Helen Denton telling some young girls what it was like to be General Eisenhower’s secretary. Though she joined in hopes of meeting a man, she had some pretty important jobs during her tour of duty . . . some things she couldn’t talk about for 50 years – not even to her husband – because she’d promised she wouldn’t.

Reenactors
Re-enactors don period attire and engage in immersion imagination as the veterans watch and remember, telling stories and shedding tears all along the day. The re-enactors spend an awful lot of time and money doing their research and trekking to these events. They take history seriously, and do not tolerate revisionists well. Their equipment and uniforms are authentically correct but they are not government-issued like the originals.

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When they’re not in character, you see things like a German giving a ride to US military folk . . . and they are all smiling. This vehicle, by the way, was a gift from the driver’s wife one Christmas. Yes, really.

JosephGetsPin
When they came home, the veterans were told they could wear their uniforms for 3 months until they found a job and got settled. They were given special pins to wear to indicate that they had served and were now discharged, reacclimatizing themselves into society. Though the pin had an official name, the veterans called it The Ruptured Duck. All veterans were given a Ruptured Duck pin Saturday morning. This is my 98 year old Uncle Joseph receiving his pin.

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And this is Walter receiving his pin.

The hangar is filled with rows of tables filled with ribbons, pins, uniforms, photos, and other memorabilia on Saturday. In one corner of the hangar, young women have set up a 1940s kitchen, complete with the cutest stove I’ve ever seen, a ringer washing machine I’m glad I don’t have to use, a wooden ironing board that looks like it positively salivates at the thought of pinching fingers, a Hoosier cabinet that reminds me of the one in my Aunt Rene’s kitchen, and a small kitchen table from that era. I like that there was some attention shone on the domestic arts of the time.

Bobhope

There’s a camp show that is performed word-for-word from the transcripts of camp shows of the era. This is Thomas Eastin (the best of the good guys, if you ask me), a college student who’s been portraying Bob Hope for several years.

When the whistle sounds at 4 o’clock, tired volunteers find a second wind and leap into action, clearing the hangar of military paraphernalia and transforming it into a ballroom for The Swing Dance. The tired young re-enactors change into their dress uniforms, and just as they must have back in the 1940’s, line up to ask pretty young women to dance. I look at the young men in those WW2 uniforms and think about how the 93 and 94 year old men sitting across the table from me were about that age when they trotted off to war. How did their mothers ever stop crying?

When I interviewed him for the book I wrote about him, my father-in-law told me that he received his marching orders the same day he was to graduate from Georgia Tech. Said the school moved the graduation ceremony up, making it earlier in the day so graduates would have time to gather their belongings and take their leave into the wild blue yonder and beyond. He said he and the other graduates walked up on stage, received their lambskin, then stepped off the stage and immediately received their orders. In the space of the few hours separating graduation from shipping out, many of them – including my father-in-law – got married.

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But it’s not just the young re-enactors who take to the dance floor. Here’s my mother dancing with Walter while Alison sings “Kiss me once and kiss me twice, and kiss me once again. It’s been a long, long time . . . ”

Catfight

At one point during the evening, this 94 year old veteran was dancing with Jenny (left) when Alison went up and in the spirit of fun, staged a cat fight for his attention. Is it just me, or does this fella seem to enjoy all the commotion?

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In the end, he chose Alison, I mean Betty Grable. His daughter cautioned Alison to hold on to him tightly, but there was magic in the air that night, magic that took his body back in time – maybe not to a foxhole, but he sure didn’t need any help finding his way around the dance floor.

Jfk

Freddie hails from Long Island, New York and travels around the country making appearances as JFK. This is my mother being totally won over by his charming personality. Look out, Marilyn. You may be able to sing Happy birthday, Mr. President, but you can’t cook like my mother.

We can argue that memory is construct and fallible, and we might agree that we’d rather war be the last avenue taken rather than the first, but surely we all agree that there’s nothing like learning about history from the lips of those who lived it. You can’t learn history like this from books. You just can’t.

Forgetting is Not an Option

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We did what we could.

We did what we could.

We did what we could.

I heard that over and over again from the lips of each of the four Pearl Harbor survivors at Sunday’s memorial service. Now in their nineties, these men may not be able to tell you their children’s names or where they parked the car, but they can still tell you with absolute certainty, with absolute clarity where they were, what they did, and what they were thinking the morning of December 7, 1941 – 70 years ago today – when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

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“My buddy and me were trying to decide what to do about breakfast,” remembers one. “Did we want to go to the mess hall or did we want to go to the church around the corner where the pretty ladies would feed us free doughnuts and coffee? We never did decide – we never got breakfast anywhere that morning. I was a 20 year old Clerk, and when I heard that first bomb hit, I thought ‘One day somebody’s gonna’ ask me who was here and how many survived,’ so I ran down to the office, squatted down, and got the muster from the bottom file cabinet drawer. About that time my second lieutenant came in. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked me, and when I told him, he said ‘That’s a good idea.’ It was the last thing he ever said cause right then, a strayer came in through the screened window and killed him. I would’ve been killed, too if I’d’ve been standing up. I just thought to get the muster. We all did whatever we could think of to do.”

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Pete remembers trying to get his bearings, trying to decide what he should do when another soldier appeared, his left arm dangling from the shot he took to the elbow. “What should I do?” the wounded soldier asked Pete. “Get in that truck over there,” Pete told him, pointing to an abandoned truck. “By the time I got to the truck, it was full of fellas needing medical attention. It was chaos. A nurse came out and started directing traffic. I’d never driven anything but a ’37 Chevrolet, but I drove that truck that day. I was grinding those gears – never did get it in second gear. Drove all the way to the hospital in first. I just did what I could.”

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“Chester was a radio operator,” his wife tells me. “There was a drill scheduled for that morning, but it was canceled, so Chester left his post to stretch his legs and that’s when the first bomb hit. He went back to his station and radioed ‘Pearl Harbor under attack. This is not a drill. Repeat: this is NOT a drill.’ It was the only thing he could think of to do.”

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The two-star General who served as emcee for the ceremony told me about going back to Pearl Harbor for some training once he made General. While there, he happened upon an old friend, an Admiral in the Navy. Knowing his friend was the son of a man who served as Commander of one of the ships stationed at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, the new General asked “Where’s your father now?” “Down there,” said the Admiral, pointing to the water where the ships and so many other bodies are interred.

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“He didn’t really want to talk about World War II,” Mark told me, “so I asked him to tell me about his scariest memory, and he told me how he was flying a mission to snap some reconnaissance photos. He looked down to turn his camera on, and when he sat back up, he was surprised to find this big silver plane flying wing-tip-to-wing-tip with his plane. ‘Where’s that guy come from?’ the American pilot was thinking. ‘Why didn’t he shoot me? Did he shoot my gunner? How in the Hell does that plane fly without any propellers?’ Questions like these whizzing through his brain, the fella looked back over at the strange plane (it was a German jet – the Germans had them, but the Americans had never heard of them), saw the German pilot salute him and then zoom off in that strange-looking plane.” Mark was so captivated by the story, he painted a picture of the two planes and presented it to the pilot. It’s now back in the museum at the Dixie Wing, the local branch of the Commemorative Air Force.

(Note: That’s Mark in the photo above, standing in front of the painting. Hard to see on account of the glare, I know. Guess you’ll just need to visit.)

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My daughter travels around the country portraying Betty Grable at events like this. “You should’ve seen those Pearl Harbor survivors when you walked by,” someone told her as she took her seat before the service began. “They were all hunched over looking at the floor, but then Betty Grable walked by, and those shoulders straightened, those heads snapped up, and those eyes never left you for a moment.”

As she greeted the survivors, she asked what she always does just before thanking them for their service: Would it be all right if I plant a Betty Grable kiss on your cheek? She’s never been turned down.

Not once.

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“Do you have as much trouble keeping your seams straight on those stockings as we always did?” one of the wives asks my daughter.

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Vetsalutes

We went outside where the flag was raised then lowered to half staff followed by the ringing of the Navy bell. As the survivors stood before the flag, one instinctively raised his arm to salute, but his arm wouldn’t cooperate . . . until, that is, his wife quietly slipped her hand under his elbow and offered her support for his salute.

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The stories from the two governments are not nearly so clear. There’s much finger pointing and enough questions to last eons. Theories abound. Heads are scratched.

Zenji Abe, a Japanese Raider, was surprised to find out on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor that the United States considered it to be a sneak attack. It was then he discovered that the Declaration of War had not been delivered to the U.S. authorities in a timely manner. No wonder it was considered a surprise attack.

Information is withheld, stories are constructed – and I mean on both sides. When do we cross the line into propaganda, I wonder.

But most importantly, I see once again the power of stories – and I don’t just mean the telling but the bearing witness, too. When we tell our stories, and when we bear witness to the stories of others, gaps are closed. Healing occurs. And, if we’re lucky, history doesn’t repeat itself.

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