Category Archives: World War 2

The Memorial Library’s extraordinary special collection is devoted to the history of the 2nd Air Division. We like things to do with World War 2, B-24 Liberators, the East Anglian airfields they flew out of, the American GIs who lived there, and the English families who hosted them. Here is where we write about those and let you know how we’re keeping history alive.

Holocaust Remembrance

Today is a very important day and requires special attention in today’s fraught interpersonal climate. In order to do justice to the memory of those victims of the Holocaust I want to share another personal anecdote shared with me by a veteran of WW2.

My older friend, whose name I will withhold for the sake of his family’s privacy, was a scout for the 6th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army. Being a scout meant he was often far from the front lines and was thereby the first to see many things which we know about now. One such thing was the concentration camp of Buchenwald. Now for those who may not know Buchenwald was one of the few places where the prisoners, hearing about the end of the war nearing and seeing the increased cruelty and efforts at extermination, managed to seize control. It was this scene of violence, deprivation, and horror that my friend was the first American soldier to witness.

Discussing his time in the army with him over the course of several unofficial interviews only once was he able to bring himself to talk about what he found or the impact it had on him. One thing that sticks out so sharply to me is the total lack of preparation he and his crew had for this discovery. While upper echelons of the military had at the very least heard rumors of work and death camps, especially as the Soviets had already liberated Auschwitz by this point, the rank and file servicemen were left in the dark. It was this that lead to the total shock experienced upon the discovery and the inability of many first responders to render appropriate aid.

Now while meeting a man who was one of the first American soldiers to see these horrors first hand is amazing enough his story does not end there. Those of you who may have read Night by Elie Weisel (if you haven’t I highly recommend it as a brilliant and unblinking account of the jewish experience in camps during the holocaust) know that the book finishes with the arrival of American tanks at the fences of Buchenwald the same day the prisoners overthrew the SS. It is, in fact, my friend and his crew who are mentioned.

Many years later my friend went to a reading by Elie Weisel, by then a celebrity and also a target for those who would continue to blame the Jewish people for WW2. After the reading he attempted to go and speak with Mr. Weisel and was stopped by security; however, Weisel recognized him, even after the span of roughly 30 years, and told his security that this man was welcome anywhere he was because of the lives he saved, his own among them.

I find myself immensely privileged to have known such a man who had such a lasting impact on the world. Whether he was just doing his duty as he frequently asserted or if he had a higher calling to humanity I will always call him a hero and a true witness to events which must never be forgotten. So, on this day, I want to call attention to the millions of victims, both alive and dead, of one of the greatest tragedies to befall humankind and to those who fought, and still fight tirelessly, against those who would seek to recreate history.

Thank you for reading and remembering.

 

-Mike

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Filed under American History, Holocaust Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War 2

FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Three Came Home (1950)

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20th Century Fox / Public Domain

It’s difficult to judge a performance, to articulate why some expressions or intonations worked while others do not. For me, the best performance I’ve ever seen on film was Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Tatsuji Suga in the 1950 war film Three Came Home. The movie follows Agnes Keith (Claudette Colbert), an American writer being held in a Japanese POW camp run by Col. Suga.  Their interactions are cordial (he’s a fan of hers), but Agnes never forgets that he’s dangerous.

In this regard, the character is reminiscent of other roles Hayakawa played after World War II. He became typecast as the honourable Japanese officer, seen most famously in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). However, in most of those films, Hayakawa’s character rarely exists as separate from the American protagonist. In Three Came Home, he is allowed one final heartbreaker of a scene.

If you haven’t already seen the film, you might want to skip this paragraph. Japan has surrendered. Suga receives news of Hiroshima, where his family was staying. He gathers up all the children from the camp (including Agnes’ son) and drives them to his estate for a tea party. As the young ones gleefully devour the sweets, the camera holds on Suga, sitting off to the side, not participating in festivities. As the sounds of happy children play in the background, his façade slowly crumbles with sorrow. The real-life Suga committed suicide shortly after being captured by Australian troops.

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Sessue Hayakawa as Col. Tatsuji Suga │ 20th Century Fox / Public Domain

Ever since Hayakawa’s rise to stardom in the 1910s (he was the original Rudolph Valentino), he stood apart from his acting peers. Instead of continuing the theatrical excesses of the stage, he recognized the power of a closeup and how subtle changes to his expression could carry substantial weight. In my opinion, the level of control that he had over his face has only ever been matched by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Those talents would continue into Hayakawa’s post-war “rediscovery.” For example, in Hell to Eternity (1960), he delivered an emotionally powerful speech entirely in un-subtitled Japanese. But, here, in Three Came Home, especially in that final scene, I believe that his talents saw their best implementation. For a few seconds, a man’s entire life passed across his face, wordlessly conveying more pathos than an entire monologue.

If you want more stories about surviving a Japanese POW camp, be sure to check out Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand, 2011) from the 2AD Memorial Library. You can also reserve a copy of Agnes Keith’s original account of these events: Three Came Home: A Woman’s Ordeal in a Japanese Prison Camp (Agnes Newton Keith, 1948). The film is in the public domain and can be watched for free on the Internet Archive:

-Francis

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Filed under American Culture, Uncategorized, World War 2

FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

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Kino Classics

There are few World War II films that I am as quick to recommend as I’ll Be Seeing You, a 1944 drama directed by William Dieterle and written by Marion Parsonnet. Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotton) and Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers, never better) are both on furlough for the Christmas holiday, he from a military hospital and she from prison. The two pass each other, ships in the night, weighed down by their respective past traumas.

Unlike most of its contemporaries, I’ll Be Seeing You doesn’t offer a massive hoorah morale boost. There is a sadness here absent from the home front films of this era. Although, as Mary’s cousin, a teenage Shirley Temple is a bright spot. For me, the quintessential scene for the film takes place during a date between the two leads, after they have seen a war film. “Is the war really like that?” Mary asks, somewhat incredulously. “I guess so,” replies Zach. No one could understand what has happened to either of them.

Like those two proverbial ships, Mary and Zach must eventually part ways. He will return to the warfront and likely be killed. She will return to prison, as her dreams of having a normal life continue to wither. But for now, these two souls without a future can embrace each other, even if it’s only for one night. It’s a note of melancholia rare for films of this era, one that allows I’ll Be Seeing You to age far more gracefully than many of its contemporaries.

If you want to learn more about actress Ginger Rogers, be sure to check out the following books from the 2AD Memorial Library:

  • Shall We Dance: The Life of Ginger Rogers (Sheridan Morley, 1995)
  • Astaire and Rogers (Edward Gallafent, 2002)

-Francis

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AMERICAN ANIMATION: Private Snafu

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Warner Bros. / Public Domain

During World War II, Warner Bros. was contracted to produce instructional animated shorts to be shown exclusively at US Army bases. The result was Private Snafu, a 26-part series released from 1943 to 1946. Rather than dryly educate, these films utilised visual gags and lowbrow humour to entertain the troops. Instead of offering an ideal figure to emulate, they were given a cartoonish cautionary tale at which to laugh. Snafu, of course, being an acronym for “Situation Normal, All F—ed Up.”

Most shorts would feature a narrator (Robert C. Bruce) trying to instruct the worst soldier ever, Pvt. Snafu (Mel Blanc, sounding a lot like Porky Pig). From the character’s disastrous bumbling and failures, the soldiers watching would learn what NOT to do.

If this is the first time you’re hearing about this cartoon series, here are some highlights to start off with. But be warned, like the nose art on B24 bombers, some of these shorts may cause offence.

Spies (Chuck Jones, 1943) – Germany and Japanese spies are everywhere. If Pvt. Snafu isn’t careful keeping a secret, then they are all in trouble. As they say, “Loose lips sink ships.”

Fighting Tools (Bob Clampett, 1943) – Pvt. Snafu learns that the Americans have the superior technology, but only if he can remember to take care of his equipment. This short is notable for its depiction of a German soldier as both formidable and comic.

The Home Front (Frank Tashlin, 1943) – As a morale boost for the soldiers watching, Technical Fairy First Class shows Pvt. Snafu how his family and friends back home are helping the war effort. When watching, pay attention to how the cartoon depicts women.

Booby Traps (Bob Clampett, 1944) – Pvt. Snafu must learn to avoid more than one type of booby trap in the North African desert. The risqué humour characteristic of the series is on full display here.

Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike (Chuck Jones, 1944) – Malaria and other diseases can be real killers in an army. Will Pvt. Snafu take the necessary precautions to protect himself and his fellow soldiers? Probably not.

If you want to learn more about how artists contributed to the war effort, be sure to check out Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Suess Geisel (Richard H. Minear, 1999) from the 2AD Memorial Library. Geisel was one of the writers for Private Snafu. Private Snafu in now in public domain, so you can also watch almost every short on the Internet Archive.

-Francis

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Filed under American Culture, Uncategorized, World War 2