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.

FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Go for Broke! (1951)

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Public Domain

In the 1950s, Hollywood sought to repent for its treatment of the Japanese during the preceding decade. Usually, this came in the form of narratives about American soldiers falling in love with Japanese war widows, most famously in Sayonara (1957). Produced by Dore Schary, Go for Broke! (1951) stands out from its contemporaries and successors. First, it explicitly features Japanese Americans, with the emphasis squarely placed on the American part. Second, the film is about Japanese American soldiers during WWII, specifically “the heroes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.” Through their exemplary heroism and sacrifice, the audience is supposed to learn that these Japanese Americans are truly American first.

The film follows Lt. Michael Grayson (Van Johnson), a new platoon leader in the 442nd. He acts as the audience surrogate, with the assumption that the typical audience member was also white and holding onto racial resentment against Japanese Americans. Both this character and the viewers are told in no uncertain terms that these solider are loyal Americans and that their bigotry is unfounded. They are also both taught specific terms to use in place of slurs and generalisations.

For this role, Johnson employs a hammy and overly cinematic acting style typical of the time. In doing so, his racism is presented more as an awkward uncertainty rather than outright hatred. It’s supposed to be funny when he struggles to pronounce his men’s names or when he is uncertain about how to interact with them. This performance stands in stark contrast with those playing the soldiers.

As the opening titles boast, the majority of the soldiers were played by actual veterans of the 442nd rather than professional actors. This film was their first time acting in front of a camera, and they perform accordingly. There is a lot of flat mumbling. Yet – especially when compared to Johnson – their acting styles start to broach on the sort of naturalism that would dominate the industry two decades later. The scenes featuring just these soldiers casually interacting with each other are when the film is its most successful.

They fall into the standard archetypes found in war films. The audience is supposed to recognise these troupes and therefore recognise that these Japanese American soldiers are not so different from white ones. An opening quote from President Franklin D. confirms this messaging:

The Proposal of the War Department to organize a combat team consisting of loyal American citizens of Japanese descent has my full approval. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.

Yet, because Grayson is the point-of-view character, the soldiers of the 442nd are positioned as having to win his – and therefore the audience’s – respect. It is not enough to be like the characters in other war movies, these soldiers need to be exemplary. For the film and the assumed viewer, their American-ness needs to be earned.

If you want to learn more about Japanese American soldiers during WWII, be sure to check out Just Americans – How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad (Robert Asahina, 2006) from the 2AD Memorial Library. The film Go for Broke! is in the public domain and can be watched for free on the Internet Archive:

-Francis

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FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

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Paramount Pictures

Not many people remember the name Preston Sturges. But, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, he held the distinction of being one of filmmakers permitted to write, direct, and produce his own movies. The other was Charlie Chaplin. Despite having such power and influence when he was alive, Sturges and his films are now virtually forgotten. Perhaps this is because of his preference for using the same set of non-celebrity actors in an age defined by movie stars. After all, his most well-remember – Sullivan’s Travels (1941) – is more known as a Veronica Lake vehicle than as a Preston Sturges film. Nevertheless, Sturges made a name for himself with some genuine comedic masterpieces in the 1930s and 1940s. For me, though, his best work was Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), a WWII satire of blind hero worship and small-town politics.

Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) has been prevented from enlisting because of his chronic hay fever. Rather than disappoint his mother, he pretends to have been deployed oversea. One day, a group of marines hear of his plight and offer to help him perpetuate the ruse. Matters escalate from there. I hesitate to reveal more, as part of the joy of this film is seeing how things spiral out of control. But know that the result is a unique balance of cynicism and earnestness. It’s funny but not cruel, never invalidating the feelings of the characters. Woodrow genuinely loves his mother and doesn’t want to hurt her. The marines have experienced loss, and the film does not make light of it. At the same time, Hail the Conquering Hero avoids lionizes its subjects – including both the deceptive marines and the patriotic townspeople. It is a welcome respite from the typically rosy and uncritical portraits of these subjects from the era. It’s genuinely surprising to envision this film being released during WWII and not decades afterward.

The depiction of the marines is particularly noteworthy. At the beginning of the film, Woodrow has settled on spending the remainder of the war drinking in a tavern. It’s the marines who push him to return home wearing one of their uniforms and a few of their medals on a “medical discharge.” It was a wise decision having the marines be the ones who hoist this plot upon the hapless protagonist. Doing so helped mitigate the less savoury elements – the stolen valour and whatnot – of the farce. At the same time, even though these men are shown capable of all sorts of shenanigans, the film treats the marines with respect and solemnity. They may instigate chaos, but they are not clowns.

Through this mixture of farce and authenticity, the film delivers a final message to the viewer. Be sceptical of heroes, and do not idolise someone just because they tell you what you want to hear. Woodrow wasn’t a coward because he didn’t fight overseas but because he passively went along with what others – both the marines and later the townspeople – wanted. The ultimate act of courage – the one given the approval of the marines – is to tell the truth, even though it wasn’t something people want to hear.

If you want to learn more about the marines during World War II, be sure to check out the following books from the 2AD Memorial Library:

  • Fighting Techniques of a US Marine, 1941-1945: Training, Techniques, and Weapons (Leo J. Daugherty, 2000)
  • USMC: A Complete History (Jon T. Hoffman, 2002)
  • The First Black United States Marines: The Men of Montford Point, 1942-1946 (Ronald K. Culp, 2007)

-Francis

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Normandy’s Legacy

I was fortunate enough last week to visit the D-Day landing sites of Utah and Omaha beaches. Growing up reading about, hearing about, and seeing movies which portray the landings which occurred did not prepare me for the vast weight of history you can feel on a metaphorical pilgrimage to these places. Looking out across the immense, flat beach (far longer from low-tide to the seawall than I ever imagined) it is hard to imagine the courage and tenacity of the brave men who fought and died there that day and throughout the rest of Normandy during the campaign.

Walking up the bluffs and through the ruins of the German positions, seeing their vantage and the scars left from the shelling by naval forces, it is hard to picture how any soldier left the beach alive on either side. In one case I saw a piece of reinforced concrete roughly the size of an SUV which had been launched several hundred feet out onto the beach from where it had begun. Likewise, the 12 foot deep craters which still, almost 75 years later, pock the ground of Pointe du Hoc give silent testament to the unbelievable destructive forces which played across the Normandy region.

However, the most important sites visited, to my mind, were the cemeteries created for the servicemen who died on D-Day and through the remainder of the Normandy campaign. Most of these young men would never leave Normandy, even after death, though a small few were sent home for funeral rites. Most striking though, even over the weight of the tens of thousands of dead, was the stark difference between that cemetery dedicated and filled with young American soldiers and that occupied by the German soldiers.

The American cemetery is done in white marble, with a sweeping vista and beautiful statuary which calls to the heroism of those interred there. Broad arches and manicured greens pay honor to the soldiers there and enhance their sacrifices through memorials and services meant to bring remembrance and awe to visitors. It truly is one of the most beautiful and touching sites in Normandy.

What surprised me, however, is the solemnity and quiet despair which lies over the graveyard for the young German soldiers who gave their lives during the campaign. In this cemetery over 20,000 German soldiers are interred, most two to a grave, and with a mass grave situated in a mound at the center. Where the American cemetery is done in shining white marble and set on the bluffs overlooking Normandy in witness to their deeds, the German cemetery is done in rough granite and sits next to a highway. Where the American cemetery is full of visitors, veterans, and school trips, the German cemetery was empty but for my family. And, where the white marble statues and arches call to the nobility in the American cemetery, the rough stone statues which occupy the center of the German graveyard call simply to the sorrow of mothers and fathers whose sons would never return home.

Both cemeteries are full of young men who, with varying levels of willingness, were doing their duty as best they could. Looking at the differences it is easy to say the truth in history being written by the victors, but also it is easy to note in the ages and stories of those who are buried the thought shared by many soldiers that under different circumstances these men could have been friends rather than mortal foes. I feel it is important to remember all who fought and died, whose sacrifices are memorialized in Normandy, as regardless of their nationality they did their duty and made the ultimate sacrifice for it.

 

Thank you for reading and remembering with me.

 

-Mike

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The Story of Joe Jablonsky

mary ann and joe jablonsky

Mary Ann (my grandma) and Joe Jablonsky (my great uncle)

This past Christmas, my grandmother dug up her family photo album. Going through the old pictures, she began telling us stories about her parents and her brothers. A figure of special interest was her older brother Joe, a radio operator who was stationed in the UK during WWII. I set about to reconstruct the story of this man I had never known, using my grandmother’s memory and the contents of that crumbling photo album. I now share that story with you.

Emil “Mill” Jablonsky and Antonia “Antoinette” Kerch (circa 1917)

My great-grandparents – Emil “Mill” Jablonsky (b. 1891) and Antonia “Antoinette” Kerch (b. 1900) were both first-generation immigrants who met and married in the 1910s. They had two sons – Joe and Danny – during the prosperous 1920s. Joe in 1920 and Danny in 1928. Their daughter – my grandmother – Mary Ann was born in 1935, during the Great Depression. As a result, there are not as many baby pictures of her as there are of her brothers.

joe jablonsky in uniform

Sgt. Joseph “Joe” E. Jablonsky

With the start of WWII, the Jablonsky boys went to war. Cousins Tony and Les joined the Army. Cousin Steve enlisted in the Navy. Danny was too young at first, but he would be a part of the post-war occupation of Japan. Joe enlisted 30 September 1942 and went into the USAAF.

THRU THESE GATES PASS THE BEST DAMNED RADIO OPERATORS IN THE WORLD!

Joe trained to become a radio operator in Scott Field, Illinois – home of “the best damned radio operators in the world!” As Mark Walderman wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat (2018), this school produced 77,370 radio operators/mechanics for the war. It remains an active Air Force base.

During training, Joe kept his family updated about his life at the base, sending them photos of him with his friends. He doesn’t name them, and I could not find out any more information about them in my research. Joe was deployed in late 1943.

Joe and friends (circa 1942/43)

Joe goofing off (circa 1942/43)

From here on out, gaps and inconsistencies start to appear in the story the photo album was telling us. I decided to start my own research, consulting the American Air Museum in Britain, the Museum of Berkshire Aviation, and the website http://www.airbornetroopcarrier.com to determine the official record of my great-uncle’s activities during the war. While helpful, there was only so much information to be found, and occasionally I would see his surname misspelled as “Jablowki.”

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C-47A #42-92099 (aka “Iron Ass”) │ http://www.airbornetroopcarrier.com (photo T. Albers)

There were a few facts that I could determine. He was the radio operator on C-47A #42-92099, nicknamed “Iron Ass.” His crew included 1st Lt. Edgar H. Albers Jr. as pilot, alternately 2nd Lt. Roy E. Alderman and 2nd Lt. Charles F. Bryan as co-pilot, 1st Lt. Ralph S. Gorton as navigator, and Sgt. Edward Baldwin as engineer. They were part of the 75th Troop Carrier Squadron in the 435th Troop Carrier Group in the Ninth Air Force. For the bulk of the war, they were stationed six miles outside of Newbury at Welford Airport. The squadron arrived 25 January 1944 and relocated to France in early 1945. On 19 January 1945, a different crew had to execute a forced landing due to engine failure. That was the end of “Iron Ass.”

Joe at Trafalgar Square in London (circa 1944)

While in Britain, Great-Uncle Joe and his crew flew two missions during D-Day (6 June 1944), dropping paratroopers at 1:20am and later gliders at 11:10pm. The whole of the 435th was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for their performance during the invasion. They were also involved in the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden (17-25 September 1944). On one of their missions, Joe’s radio was destroyed by flak. He would bring a piece of that flak back home with him as a memento. For the remainder of the war, they flew resupplies for the 101st Airborne Division.

Joe’s letter from somewhere in North Africa (9 Nov. 1943)

The family back home never heard about these missions, though, at least not as Grandma remembers it. The only bit of the above information she recalled was that his plane was called “Iron Ass.” Admittedly, that is probably the most memorable part of the story. Joe’s correspondence did not mention specifics, or alternately it outright misled his family. For example, a letter dated on the 3 November 1943 was supposedly sent from somewhere in northern Africa. Joe evens writes about seeing jungles and deserts. However, he flew directly from the US to the UK on 23 October 1943. They did not have a layover in Africa.

That said, even after the war, Joe would relay stories about flying over jungles in South America. He would even tell his son about having to shake their boots every morning in case of scorpions while in northern Africa.  As I do not see why Joe would continue such a ruse so long after being discharged, I must acknowledge that there is some incongruity to his story.

Joe’s postcard to Mary Ann (16 Feb. 1944)

Joe’s postcard to Mary Ann (3 Mar. 1944)

The rest of the correspondence that my grandmother preserved were more innocuous and straightforward, as he took time to send his 8-year-old sister souvenir postcards from Scotland and London in early 1944. In these posts, he joked about London Bridge and thanked her for the candies sent from home. In one of his stories, while in London, Joe had his first ham sandwich and covered it with Coleman’s Mustard, thinking that it was the same as American yellow mustard. It was not.

G.I.-Grams (14 May 1944)

For Mother’s Day 1944, a local Chicago paper published his and other soldiers’ messages for their mothers. Joe wrote: “Dear Mother, having swell time in London. Thinking of you very much this Mother’s Day.” These correspondences all preceded D-Day.

joe jablonsky after the war (~1945)

Joe after the war

Joe was never the same after the war, as my grandmother recalls. She shared a few of his stories. Joe had a girlfriend in London, the daughter of a local professor. But they were killed by a bomb, presumably as part of Operation Steinbock (21 Jan – 29 May 1944). Joe found out when he went to visit their house only to find it in ruins. Grandma did not remember the girl’s name, so I was not able to learn anything else about her. In another story, Joe recounted seeing one of his friends and fellow crewmembers hit by shrapnel and bleed to death right next to him.

Joe died in 1976, survived by a son. He was 55.

Over these past few months, I’ve been scraping together bits of information from various sources in order to create this incomplete narrative of a man’s life. I wish I could say that this exercise has made me closer to him, but it doesn’t. He just feels further away. The pictures are fading. The online archives are incomplete. Soon, Joe will leave even living memory. This blog post too will turn into digital dust. Putting this story up here feels like a futile gesture as I hope for someone – anyone – to remember Joe Jablonsky.

Rather than despair, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of keep these stories – these people – alive through preservation and through retelling. Thank you for indulging this little bit of family history. I hope that you enjoyed it.

A special thanks to Mary Ann Hedin, Michael Jablonsky, and Elizabeth O’Malley for helping me compose this account of our family’s history.

fritzy the cat

Fritz the Cat

-Francis

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