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Veteran’s Day: The 100th Anniversary of the Start of WWI

The diary of my mother, Joan, from when she was a teenager in the lead up to World War II and after it began, taught me many things.  Among them, how present in her mind World War I loomed.  Not even born when World War I raged, she grew up in a world dominated by the horrors of that conflict.  It enters her diary at numerous points.

Joan even dreams about the war.  Here she is at age 15:

Friday, December 31, 1937

I had the awfullest dream last night. I dreamt a war was begun and people were running about with brightened looks in their eyes. I was a boy and I knew I would have to be a soldier. I was afraid to go to war. I kept seeing trenches and mud and horror and pain and things—and killing people—and I was terribly scared inside. But I knew I would have to join the army anyhow because otherwise people would call me coward. I went to enlist and that’s all I remember. I figured I might have three months in a training group before I would have to fight. It was a terrible dream and I was so scared. That’s all I remember. . .

Poster for the movie Wings from 1927.

Poster for the movie Wings from 1927.

At this point, the image of war in people’s minds included trench warfare, as shown in movies like The Big Parade or Wings.

Poster for the film The Big Parade (1925)

Poster for the film The Big Parade (1925)

Two years after the start of WWII in Europe and not a month away from Pearl Harbor, Joan has become more cynical.  Here is an entry written when she still 18 years old.

Thursday, November 13, 1941

. . . Day before yesterday was Armistice Day, if you can call it that—1941 A. D.. . . If we live, we’ll look back on these days and know, perhaps, either that they were not as important as we thought they were—or that they were much more important. God, in the heavens, look down on the world! . . . Today they finally finished repealing the Neutrality Bill.[1] Arm our ships and send them into belligerent ports—drums beating louder now—we had a peace meeting at school day before yesterday—what the hell, what is Armistice? Time goes on.

[1] One of the bills of the 1930s that came from noninterventionist desires. With its repeal, the involvement of the United States in World War II was only a matter of days.

War becomes real to Joan after Pearl Harbor.  Here she is, age 18.

Wednesday, December 10, 1941

The Japanese paratroops have captured Luzon in the Philippines and sunk two British ships, the Repulse and another near Singapore. Hitler speaks to Reichstag tomorrow. We just heard the first casualty lists over the radio. . . . Lots of boys from Michigan and Illinois. Oh my God! . .

Here is a short film about the invasion of the Philippines by Japan.

Here is a trailer of The Big Parade.

Here are scenes from Wings.

Norah’s 1941 photograph

Norah’s 1941 photograph


Norah, an English girl experiencing WWII on the home front in England, gets photos taken of herself. As I’ve discovered in Joan’s diary, photos are key for sharing my mom’s story and visualizing the past.

Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:


20th September 1941: Photos from Winter’s arrived. Sent Danny one.

 Norah’s visit to W.W. Winter, a professional photographer on Midland Road, Derby, was her second attempt to acquire a decent photograph of herself in the late summer and autumn of 1941. She had visited a different studio in August but was unhappy with the result (‘just horrid’). So she took herself off to Winter’s, the oldest and most established studio photographer in town.

W.W.Winter in Derby Photo: ITV News Central

W.W.Winter in Derby
Photo: ITV News Central

Winter’s photograph – the one I have used for the banner for this blog, the one that will hopefully be the main image on the front cover of my book – lies in front of me on my desk. Norah half sits, half leans against a high bench. She is wearing a dark dress, belted to the waist, with a pleated skirt, short sleeves, a…

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Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination

I love the blog Socks for the Boys! Here Alison ponders what role the imagination plays in the diary format and our interpretation of reading others’ diaries.  A lovely post!

Kernels of Truth: historians and the imagination.

New York World’s Fair at the Start of WWII: Tarzan and Hedy Lamarr

Elsewhere I have written about Joan’s visit to the NY World’s Fair that first week of the war in September 1939.

Poster advertising the Fair

Poster advertising the Fair

Her poem, New York World’s Fair 1939, commemorates that visit and ponders the peace at home.

We shall remember this peace -

This caught moment of half-night beauty

Music – and a night bird blinded by the spotlight

That same light which has just flashed

Following it as it moves….

You can read the rest of the poem here.

The New York Times today writes about how the war disturbed the World’s Fair, including what food to serve.  As the Times in 1939 reported:

“Foremost was an alarm from chefs of several outstanding foreign restaurants that some delicacies heretofore transported from Europe might have a little trouble getting by the submarines….The Polish restaurant said its famous hams would last through October. The British Buttery, however, faces a shortage in its Cheshire, Cheddar and Stilton cheese….[T]he Finnish Restaurant is worried about its smoked reindeer meat supply.”

There were many spectacular performances at the Fair. Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame appeared, according to Brooks Atkinson in the Times.


Atkinson wrote how you can enjoy “Aquadonis Weissmuller, baring his wide breast to the breezes….and you can also have the pleasure of seeing a fat man splash, although not in civil attire, which is the basic philosophy of fat comedians in a swimming tank.”



Here you can see the trailer to the original 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape man.

There was also a Hedy Lamarr film, “Lady of the Tropics,” that opened.

The Fair appealed to the viewer’s sense of adventure, the exotic, and remote.  But those lands would become all too familiar to those who had to fight in the war…..


September 1, 1939: 75th Anniversary of the Start of World War II

September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, conventionally has been called the day World War II began.  Of course, the roots of the war lie much deeper and further back, as Joan’s diary illustrates.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the start of the war, today’s post looks at an unusual topic, but one which Joan uses to ground a poem commemorating the start of World War II.

Catalpa Trees and Out of Fashion Vegetation

I had never even heard of a catalpa tree before I read my mother’s diaries from the period before and during World War II. Today this species is making headlines.  A recent article, “You’re Planting That Old Thing?”, extols old vegetative species, while pointing out their deficiencies and drawbacks.

First, for those who, like me, are new to the glories of catalpa trees, here’s a photo.

Catalpa Tree.

Catalpa Tree.

And do view this slideshow of “old-fashioned” plants.

There is even a (“non-existent”) Catalpa Tree Appreciation Society.

The author of the Times article, Michael Tortorello, writes that “Almost no one appreciates the catalpa tree, and few gardeners have planted one since the financial crisis. The one in the 1930s.”  Exactly when my mother was writing about catalpas.  Two of the 19th-century catalpa enthusiasts came from the midwest:  Ohio and Illinois where Joan grew up.

Catalpa came out of fashion — even though it was beautiful and the wood was vital for railroad ties — because it could be messy with its seedpods.

Catalpa in bloom

Catalpa in bloom

Perhaps what we need now is an analysis of the catalpa in literature and war. For Joan, it was a symbolic tree, linked irrevocably with the start of World War II.

In Memory – August 31, 1939 [Age 16]


I remember standing in the crooked shadow of the Catalpa tree

The August-September night it started.

White moon on the grass and moon mist over the fields.

Even then. It was so still.

The crickets sang farewell to summer.

And the smell of a golden reaping

Was rich in the air.

Even then. While we were so still

Somewhere the guns were beginning to boom

And another crop was being harvested.


Diary Museum: “Paper voices always make a sound”

Joan’s diaries add to history by giving a personal point of view at a time of political upheaval. Granted, some of her insights are light-hearted.  Here’s her self-reflection at age 14.

Monday, May 3, 1937

Got my hair set today. In my opinion, if I had hollower cheeks, I’d be a perfect double for Garbo.

Garbo in Inspiration (1931)

Garbo in Inspiration (1931)

As a fellow Swede (well, half-Swede–Joan’s father had come from Sweden in 1913), Joan certainly paid attention to the most famous Swedish actress in Hollywood!

But Joan also had profound insights that defy her young age.  Here she is at age 16, writing comments ranging from fashion to woes with her mom to politics.

Easter Day, April 9, 1939

High—! Well, I went to 11:00 service [in church] with George Hodge this morning. Actually was on time. Wore my new tweed swagger coat and powder blue hat.

"Me, Just gorgeous of course," she writes sarcastically.

“Me, just gorgeous of course,” she writes sarcastically.


This afternoon spent at home . . . Mom and I in our separate cells . . . I was lucky, I had the living room with the radio. Heard “Träumerai.” Such haunting music, but I can’t even hum the tune now.

Well, it seems my prophecy about Easter 1939 [that the war would begin] is wrong but perhaps the world is to go to pieces today. Well, “Peace on Earth, good will to men.”

Father Carr in his sermon lambasted Hitler and Mussolini. It’s easy to accuse them now, but he wouldn’t accuse the greedy statesmen who laid the foundations for the next war at Versailles.

The importance of diaries in history has been fully acknowledged at the National Diary Archive Foundation in Pieve Santo Stefano, the so-called “City of Diaries,” in Italy.

Diaries from The Archives of Pieve Santo Stefano

Diaries from The Archives
of Pieve Santo Stefano

As Elizabetta Povoledo writes in her New York Times article, the founder, Saverio “’Tutino believed that everyone is one of many, and together we become history.'” As Loretta Veri, “the archive’s former director who now raises funds to support it,” says, Tutino “’used to say that we are privileged to hear the rustle of others, that paper voices always made a sound.’”

Povoledo writes that artists and playwrights have been inspired by “the 39 scraps of paper scribbled in a Rome jail by 18-year-old Orlando Orlandi Posti during the last six weeks of his life. Arrested on Feb. 3, 1944, for warning his friends about an impending roundup by German soldiers, Mr. Orlandi Posti managed to smuggle his thoughts — mostly expressing his devotion to a girlfriend — out of prison, rolled up in the collar of shirts destined for the laundry. He became one of the 335 Italians who died on March 24, 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in reprisal for the killing of 33 German policemen by Italian partisans.”


Entry to caves in the Fosse Ardeatine Monument. From

Entry to caves in the Fosse Ardeatine Monument. From

As the Archive’s director, Natalia Cangi, says, “‘Diaries go on to have other lives.'”

Natalia Cangi, the director of the National Diary Archive Foundation. More than 7,000 memoirs line the archive’s shelves. Credit Alessandro Penso for The New York Times.  From

Natalia Cangi, the director of the National Diary Archive Foundation. More than 7,000 memoirs line the archive’s shelves. Credit Alessandro Penso for The New York Times. From

Joan would never have expected people to read her teenaged diaries, though she does welcome that option.  As she writes at age 19,

Tuesday, January 20, 1942

Heard Stephen Vincent Benét[1] tonight on “Poetry and History.” He was remarkable. Clear yet forceful. . . . He appears to think we can come out of the war thumbs up. . . .

Mr. Benét was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time—but to the understanding of the individual—not as me—but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older—are written here to remind us. A help not only in history but in psychology (I can’t even spell it). If I can do that I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to. I rather like the idea of social archeologist pawing over my relics.

Stephen Vincent Benét

Stephen Vincent Benét

[1] A Pulitzer Prize–winning author.


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Home Front Girl


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