RSS Feed

In Honor of Veteran’s Day: The Fascination of World War II

Most moving to me at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, even more than the tombs of the famous, is the American Memorial Chapel where a page is changed daily listing American military killed in World War II.

The American Memorial Chapel at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

That touched me as World War II always does, perhaps because the estranged siblings – England and the U.S. – had reconciled over the death of innocence, an innocence even World War I had not destroyed, or else why call it the “Great War” with all the implications that it would be the final battle?  No, World War II is all the more poignant for its number of dead, the implication that wars have come before and will come again (as they always have and will). The divided family has scattered, throughout the world, a world awash in blood.

For me, my fascination channels itself in being an “old movie buff.”  I’ve even converted my 15-year old son into loving World War II films.  Why are these movies so appealing?

It is true that England has not gotten over WWII.  One year when we lived in London, my husband and I kept seeing WWII films in the afternoon:  our secret guilty television watching – don’t tell the kids!  “Old” Europe (WWII) still exists several times a week on Channel 4 from 1:00-3:00 p.m. where plucky Cockneys and stiff-upper lipped Brits skeptically take the clumsy and cocky but well-meaning Yanks to their hearts, and love and despise the buffoonish Italians who are harmless unlike the evil Jerries. The films we saw included Went the Day Well? about the “Jerries” invading England (1942).

Poster for the 1942 film, “Went the Day Well?”

The Way Ahead 1944, with David Niven whipping civilians into infantry shape, has a classic ending:  as the now battle-hardened recruits disappear into the bomb smoke of north Africa with bayonets on their guns to face the Bosch, the words “The Beginning” appear on the screen.  A classic.

You can watch it all here:  The Way Ahead.

Here’s the scene from In Harm’s Way (1965) where John Wayne as Admiral Torrey is reconciled with his son Brandon de Wilde of Shane (1953) fame.

When we watched The Malta Story (1953), I was dutifully moved by the courage of the Maltese.  I’m an ideal audience for these movies, easily touched by patriotism and courage.  My husband, Jim, pointed out that Alec Guinness and his Maltese girlfriend, played by Muriel Pavlow, are too happy; one of them has to die by the end. He does, heroically, and she becomes the grieving Madonna.

Here are some excerpts from this fine movie.

Our son, John, continued this family tradition of watching WWII films by taking a class called “World War II in Films” in his middle school.  It’s wonderful that his teacher, Will Shoaf, introduces kids this young (7th and 8th grade) to history through its popular reception.

Once my daughter, Sarah, and I watched The Cruel Sea (1953) with Jack Hawkins.  It’s the usual heroic, though grim, tale of a ship protecting a convoy and what happens–not much positive, though definitely heroic in that grim, stiff-upper lip way. 

I worried about scaring my daughter, Sarah, with such films when she was only 7. But, as she wisely said at the time, “I’m more afraid of things which haven’t happened than things which have happened.  Because things which haven’t happened still could happen.  I get nightmares from Harry Potter, not World War II.”

Scavenger Hunt Part 2: Where did Joan live in the 1930s and 1940s?

On my trip to Chicago to give a talk about Joan and her diary Home Front Girl at the Schaumburg Township District Library in Illinois, part of the greater Chicago area, I stayed with a dear college friend, Phil. We undertook an exciting and unexpected treasure hunt to find out where my mom, Joan, lived in the 1930s and 1940s.  You can read about the first part of this scavenger hunt here.

I know that in 1932, Mom lived at 214 S. Throop Street.  We didn’t get to visit there. But soon we did go to her home for many years in the 1930s in the Lakeview neighborhood, north of the Loop at 821 West Cornelia Avenue.

While here, she attended Louis Nettlehorst Elementary School

and then Horace Greeley. She writes about her school newspaper work while at Horace Greeley when she is 14.

Monday May 3, 1937

….At [the school paper’s] reporters’ meeting, I was commissioned to write up Horace Greeley School’s exhibit at the library oh – phooey – I think I’ll spring a poem on them. Just for punishment, you know…..Got my hair set today. In my opinion, if I had hollower cheeks, I’d be a perfect double for Garbo…..

Greta Garbo does share Joan’s Swedish heritage, but they didn’t look alike!  Joan jokes as usual…..

Joan then attends Lake View High starting in the fall of 1937.

Lake View High School

She loves to write, and in her diary talks about her writing prospects–she is a bit dubious.

Monday November 15, 1937

Lake View had an Open House Friday night and Mrs. Turner, my ex-English teacher, told Mother I’d be a great writer someday —- Hm…hm….

Here is the yearbook from the year she attended.

Lake View High School Yearbook 1937

Lake View High School Yearbook 1937

This is before she transferred to “U-High” (University Laboratory Schools) for junior and senior years of high school. You can read more about that wonderful experience here.

U-High sits right next to the University of Chicago–many miles away.  So Joan was chronically late to class for two years.  This diary entry she wrote at age 15, almost 16.

Monday October 3, 1938

Well, I’ve started at University High! I got there late as usual but I’ve resolved—never again. It was all on account of the “L”, you see.   The Jackson Park Express doesn’t stop at Belmont in the morning—only I didn’t know that. Waited patiently, the ”L” came…I brightened up…L passed by…I stormed up to guard who was already explaining to an irate young man. He told us what “L” to take to Chicago Ave. We got on very crowded train. Finally reached Chicago Ave. Me and irate young man (no longer irate) got off. We were way at the end of funny platform. We began to walk, slowly, puzzledly. Did you ever walk in perfect harmony, without talking. We did. Finally “L” came. Got on. He got off the stop before me. I was 15 minutes late…..

Almost every subsequent entry about school indicates she was late.

Finally, her parents moved south to Hyde Park, the neighborhood where U-High and the University of Chicago are.  That way she could easily walk to school–though she was still always late!!

She lived at 4950 Blackstone Ave. in 1940 and 1941. Though my friend Phil drove me there, the apartment she lived in had long been replaced by something from the post-war period. I know my mom lived here, because she had written her name and address on the title page.

Joan has written her address here.

Joan has written her name and address on the top of this page.

Joan wrote the following dates and events in various inks on page 763 of her history textbook, which was Ferdinand Schevill’s A History of Europe from the Reformation to the Present Day (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940).

Ferdinand Schevill’s A History of Europe from the Reformation to the Present Day (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940).

Ferdinand Schevill’s A History of Europe from the Reformation to the Present Day (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940).

This page concludes chapter 44, “Distracted Europe: Outstanding Factors of the Current International Chaos.”

Joan’s pen marks indicate events happening in Europe.

May 5, 1940—Norway gives up

May 13, 1940—Holland conquered

May 28, 1940—King Leopold gives up

June 10, 1940—Italy invades France

June 14, 1940—Paris taken

June 17, 1940—France surrenders

Oct. 15, 1940—First Conscription Day

March 9, 1941—Passage of Lend-Lease Bill (HR1776)

Phil and I did manage to visit 5629 Dorchester Ave. where I know she lived in January 1942.

And of course I couldn’t visit Chicago without the obligatory pilgrimage to the corner of 55th and Woodlawn in Hyde Park. My grandparents lived here for many years in my memory.

Me (Susie) in front of 5501 South Woodlawn Ave. where my grandparents lived.

Me (Susie) in front of 5501 South Woodlawn Ave. where my grandparents lived.

And kitty-korner is a watering hole of great importance to family lore.

The Woodlawn Tap, aka "Jimmy's", is looking a bit more hipstery than it did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s when I was taken there, even as a child!

The Woodlawn Tap, aka “Jimmy’s”, is looking a bit more hipstery than it did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s when I was taken there, even as a child!

I’m so grateful to my dear friend Phil for exploring on this adventure with me and to my mom for leaving all these clues so we could undertake this treasure hunt to find her homes from when she was young!

June 19, 1943: Joan and Bob’s wedding at Rockefeller Chapel

Today is the 72nd anniversary of my parents’ wedding.  I would like to commemorate it by telling about a lovely trip I recently took to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago where my dear college friend, Phil, is organist. He and I were so excited to find out that where he works is also where my parents were married on June 19, 1943. You can read more about my recent adventures at the Chapel here.

Now for some photos from the 1940s! Joan’s engagement photo dates from early 1943.

Joan's engagement photo.

Joan’s engagement photo.

Here are treasured photos from my parents’ wedding on June 19, 1943.  Bob Morrison and Joan Wehlen get married at Rockefeller Chapel!

Now it is 72 years since that auspicious day.  Joan and Bob were married 66 years and died within 2 months of each other.  We miss them profoundly, but we grateful for having had them as wonderful parents!  Happy Anniversary!

Scavenger Hunt Part I: Echoes of a Wedding March

I was invited to give a talk about my mom, Joan, and her diary Home Front Girl at the Schaumburg Township District Library in Illinois, part of the greater Chicago area. Joan grew up in Chicago, so I was thrilled to be able to share her story with natives of the area.

Beautiful poster--though my name is "Morrison," not "Johnson"!!!

Beautiful poster–though my name is “Morrison,” not “Johnson”!!!

The trip consisted of more than giving a talk.  As I was staying with a dear college friend, Phil, we undertook an exciting and unexpected treasure hunt to find out where my mom, Joan, lived in the 1930s and 1940s.

Phil and I were thrilled to find out that his job as an organist at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus which Joan attended had personal resonance.  Joan and my dad, Bob, were married there in 1943!!

Rockefeller Chapel in lovely weather.

Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in lovely weather.

Joan was certainly aware of the namesake of the Chapel.  When she was 14 years old, she wrote a poem in response to the death of Rockerfeller (that’s how she spelt it!).

[1937; John D. Rockerfeller [sic] died May 23, 1937]

                                                To Mr. Rockerfeller

I’d rather be myself

With broken shoes and dirty face

And keep my youth and joyous hopes

Than put myself into your place.

For I am young and you are old,

Mine has just begun and yours is cold,

I’ve all the world before me yet–

While you have lived — can but forget

I’m hungry now — and tired, too,

But still I’m happier than you,

The only thing that time can hold

For you is death. For you are old,

And I am young

And life is yet unsung

Within my heart,

I’ve only just appeared on Earth

While you depart.

I took many photos in the Chapel while Phil brilliantly taught his super talented musican students.

IMG_1310 IMG_1315 IMG_1316 IMG_1321 IMG_1323 IMG_1329 IMG_1336 IMG_1337 IMG_1340 IMG_1341

I took a video inside the chapel.

Here is some lovely music played by my friend’s student as I wandered and wondered in the Chapel in 2015.


Joan writes about hearing the President of the University of Chicago speak well after the war has begun in Europe, but before Pearl Harbor. She is 18 years old when President Hutchins talks from the Chapel.

Sunday March 30, 1941

Hullo. Heard Hutchins today on the radio—spoke from [Rockefeller] Chapel. I meant to go and hear him but didn’t arise early enough. He was good, he was wonderful. He was right. “The proposition is peace.” Probably most people won’t agree with him—again…[1]

[1] Here is a copy of Hutchins’ speech that Joan heard:

Little did she know when she wrote those words that in less than two years she would be married to my dad there! I’ll be posting photos from that event in a few weeks.

Here are more photos from my talk in Schaumburg.

My dear friend, Phil, took the photos at this event.

My dear friend, Phil, took the photos at the event in Schaumburg, Ill.  Here I am being introduced by the librarian who invited me, Jane Rozek.

The mysterious ways of time passing and people connecting in unexpected ways…..

Giving my talk in Schaumburg.

Giving my talk in Schaumburg.  An eerie light is cast.

Mother’s Day: Art Appreciation and Artistic Ability Through the Generations

My mother Joan sketches many charming doodles throughout her diaries.

Joan’s doodle of her listening to the coronation on the radio under blankets

Joan’s doodle of her listening to the coronation on the radio under blankets on Wednesday, May 12th in 1937. She was 14 years old.

December 17, 1938.  Joan doodled different views of her in her costume.

December 17, 1938. Joan doodled different views of her in her costume as the Virgin Mary.  She turned 16 3 days later.

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

“Me, Just gorgeous of course,” she writes sarcastically on Easter Day, April 9, 1939 when she was 16.

Her granddaughter, Liz Morrison, is the child of Jim and Ruth Morrison (Jim’s my older brother).  She is a brilliant artist.  I think Joan would be the first to admit that Liz’s art far exceeds her own!

After Joan’s death in 2010, Liz created a series of gorgeous illustrations in honor of her beloved grandmother. Here are some of them.

Joan: the Ohio reference is to Bob, her eventual husband and Liz's grandfather (and my dad!)

Joan: the Ohio reference is to Bob, her eventual husband and Liz’s grandfather (and my dad!). He was born in Ohio. By Liz Morrison.

My parents loved to canoe, sharing that passion with their children.

Joan canoeing

Joan canoeing by Liz Morrison.

If you would like to see more of Liz Morrison’s art, please look here.  If you would like to purchase some of her work, check out her ETSY site here.  She is an amazing craftswoman!

This series by Liz also includes a beautiful one of Joan’s granddaughter, Sarah–my daughter!

Sarah has amazing hair.  By Liz Morrison.

Sarah has amazing hair. By Liz Morrison.

Sarah loves art too–her specialty is art history and art conservation and restoration which she is learning about now at college. So Joan’s legacy–art creation and art appreciation–lives on in her granddaughters.

Here is a passage from Joan’s diary where she is puzzling over a piece of “new” art at the Art Institute in Chicago at age 15.

Wednesday, June 22, 1938

I went to the Art Institute for the afternoon. Had a lovely half hour contemplating Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano. Modern art [Salvador Dalí]. There was a curly blonde fellow sitting next to me. We both considered the picture for a long time. Then I got up to look again to see I wasn’t crazy. I sat down. He got up. Ditto. We looked at each other. A woman came into the room, looked at the picture and started back (it has that effect). Then, thinking we were together, she started to discuss the picture with C.B. [Curly Blonde] and me. No decision, though we nodded solemnly.

"A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano," 1936 by Salvador Dali.

“A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano,” 1936 by Salvador Dali.

Joan ended up marrying a chemist–but he never lifted the cuticle of a grand piano!

Alan Turing, “The Imitation Game,” and Joan’s math “skills”

Joan’s diaries end before anyone in the public knew about Bletchley Park in England.

There M16 code breakers attempted — and succeeded — in figuring out German code and winning the war.  Well, that’s one way of interpreting history. Certainly no one can deny the importance of this work.

Alan Turing.  Read more about him in this article from The Guardian.

Alan Turing. Read more about him in this article from The Guardian.

A recent Hollywood movie focuses on Alan Turing, brilliant mathematician.

Advertisement for "The Imitation Game"

Advertisement for “The Imitation Game”

His story is also controversial for his being prosecuted for homosexuality after the war in 1952 (he was pardoned in 2013).  Tragically, two years later in 1954, he committed suicide. Here’s the trailer for the film that examines Turing’s life.


During the war, his work was key for England’s ability to resist the Nazi onslaught.

Cypher work during World War II.

Cypher work during World War II.

You can read this article in The New York Times and view its fascinating slide show with images of Turing’s desk and notes.

Enigma Machine.

Enigma Machine.

Follow the links on this page to read more about the secret history at Bletchley Park.

But that was not the only secret work being done during WWII.  My parents say that on their first date, they visited Jackson Park in Chicago and “played spies.”  But I think Joan would be the first to admit that her spy work–if she had been a spy–would not have involved cypher work.  Math was not her best friend.

At age 14, Joan expresses antagonism towards math.

Monday, November 22, 1937

Geometry is awful!

Phooey to Euclid—(he invented it)

Phooey to Mrs. Uhlir—(she thinks she teaches it)

Phooey to me—(I don’t know it)

Well—Good Night.

A few days later, she continues her lament.

Sunday, November 28, 1937

I came home and said, “Don’t disturb me—I’m going to do Geometry,” and proceeded to read a Conan Doyle[1] book—(not on Geometry). I guess I’ll do the Geometry tomorrow—maybe—I hope, I hope. Well, Geometry we have always with us. .

[1] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes.  Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game," also plays Sherlock Holmes in the t.v. series.

Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” also plays Sherlock Holmes in the t.v. series. Sherlock.

Geometry just won’t go away.

Now at the elderly age of 15, Joan writes,

Tuesday, January 4, 1938

We’re doing circle theorems in Geometry and Burton, who sits behind me, hums music from Wagner’s operas all through it—it’s very bad for my concentration which isn’t so strong naturally anyhow.

Miracles do happen.

Tuesday, January 25, 1938

Hello! To all awful things there must come an end—test week is over! Hooray! We had a Geometry test yesterday—et[1] surprise (!) I got 94!—which is marvelous for me!!!

[1] Joan often uses Latin for simple words, such as “and” in this sentence.

The math adventures continue.

Wednesday, February 2, 1938

There was the handsomest boy(s) in my Latin class and most of the kids in Geometry are even dimmer than me—goody.

Joan jokes about her math skills — or lack of them — but she’s clearly very bright.

Monday, May 16, 1938

I’ve won the Scholarship for the University of Chicago Jr. College.[1] Am I thrilled! Whoopee!!!!!

University of Chicago Junior College, known as U-High.

University of Chicago Junior College, known as U-High, and today the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Today a girl, Shirley Schuerman, asked me to tutor her in Geometry! Whew! Was I surprised! However, she seemed serious and I like her so I said I would. She asked me if I’d start tonight at her house, adding that she had a nice brother (do I look like that kind of girl?). So I went over tonight and we did Geometry for 1½ hours. The brother was in some vague upper portion of the house writing a thesis for a Master’s degree—he’s already completed four yrs at Northwestern—whew! These sweet brothers. I feel awfully inferior. I didn’t see him but I saw his picture—he’s got grey eyes—!! But the main point is that someone asked me to tutor [her] in Geometry! Whoopee!

[1] Now called the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

The next day, the news about her scholarship hits the school rumor mill.

Tuesday, May 17, 1938

Of course it got around school that I had won it and everyone congratulated me and so forth. But they all seemed so awfully surprised—do I really seem that dumb? And my Geometry teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, heard about it and asked me about it in class. She seemed so dubious about it that I had to laugh. I’m afraid she hasn’t a very good impression of me for she went away shaking her head and saying, “I can’t understand it.” Evidently my Geometry record is not so hot. . . . Mrs. Hellman made me read my letter in class—I blushed so sweetly. . . .

Well, I’m slowly realizing that I’ve won the scholarship! Do I feel queer. All day people were making cracks. You see, I don’t look like the smart type, I’m afraid.

Thankfully, the end of the year comes.

Wednesday, June 15, 1938

When Mrs. Uhlir was bragging about me to the class, she looked at Lorraine who had been standing sorta in background and said, “What are you getting in Geometry?” Lorraine said she was promised an S. Then to me, “And you,” confidently. Oh did I feel terrible when I said G. Of course, I may get an E but G is a surer guess.[1] Anyhow, Mrs. Uhlir looked quite shocked. And the class grinned its head off (query: does a class have a head?).


Joan saying “This is the way to win a scholarship–burn the midnight oil (true) and work (false) like me.” The class says, “Oh!”

[1] The grades seem to have been E (excellent), G (good), and S (satisfactory).

Math doesn’t disappear from her life.  As she writes at age 18,

Friday, October 10, 1941

Hello, well, I should be speaking French to you after a week of that delightful language, but unfortunately (or fortunately) all we’re having is pronunciation. Lord help us all. It’s fun—though—I like all my classes—fairly well though I get rather bored in MVC[1] although it’s an intermediate course.

Phy Sci[2] turns out to be rather unboring so far but I fear I am no genius in math. We have Dean Smith and he’s just swell, you know, but I just don’t know square root!

Germans say Russia is conquered[3] and they appear to be getting on to Moscow.

[1] Methods, Values, and Concepts.

[2] Physical science.

[3] Hitler told Germans on October 3, 1941, that the Russians were vitually defeated.

Fortunately, the Germans were wrong.

Little over a month later, Joan writes,

Thursday, November 13, 1941

. . . Just think, I’ll be 19 in a month, getting old, gramma! I got the highest mark in our last French test—94—but we have another tomorrow so woe be unto me—also highest in Poetry on Milton. I don’t like him—and Mr. Bond had me read my paper aloud. I was quite embarrassed. . . . Passed Math in Phy Sci too—with the lowest C. Was quite happy! Whee! . . . We’re on astronomy now. . . .

So, Joan was not a math whiz like Alan Turing.  But she was an astute and subtle writer.  For which we are all grateful!


“Greater Love Hath No Man Than This” — Part 5 and Conclusion

Five years passed; England had entered the war; her men enlisted; a March offensive was being pushed along the front; several companies were sent out. The drive succeeded, but not a few English “Tommies” lay dying on the field when it was deserted by the victors. Two lay near each other, waiting for the dawn. One was grey-eyed and in the mist of early morning he seemed very pale. The other was blond and blue-eyed and white with pain. The only color to him was a gradually spreading red stain over his chest. They looked at each other and the grey eyed one spoke painfully.

Paul tries to comfort his dying friend in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Paul tries to comfort his dying friend in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

“Hello, fella,” the words shot out, “nice – day, isn’t it.”

“Yes,” said the other, as though his lungs would burst, — “lovely.”

“Oh, you too. I’m sorry; I didn’t know,” replied the other seeing the red stain. “I hope I — we — don’t — uh — go — before dawn. I should hate to – uh – go – without the sun.”

“Yes,” said the other, “so should I. It’s odd you know – like this, I mean. I was going to do so much while I lived – and here I am – dying in this –!” He coughed painfully and could not go on.

The grey-eyed one watched the bright-haired one sympathetically. Then:

“You know, if I live till the sun comes up I’ll be exactly 23 years old. It’s my birthday. Funny – dying on your birthday.”

The bright haired one controlled his coughing and looked with wonder at the other as he groped haltingly for words, “That’s funny. I’ll be 23, too, if I live. I was ….   I was born at dawn. I hope, “– a spasmodic cough — “I live to see….. the sun.”

A few minutes passed. Then:

“You know,” this from the grey-eyed one, “I seem to know you. What’s your name?”

“Charlie,” said the blue-eyed one between coughs.

“Guess I was wrong,” said the other, “I can’t know you. Mine’s Tommy.”

“H’dy’a do, Tommy,” said the bright haired one reaching out a blood-stained hand.

“Very well, thank you, “ said the grey-eyed one, taking it.

Silence then.

Statue honoring American Expeditionary Force in World War I

Statue honoring American Expeditionary Force in World War I.  Here an American doughboy shakes hands with a French soldier.  Read about WWI monuments like this one here.

“D’ya know, now, we’re dying,” gulped the bright-haired one.

“Yes,” said Tommy.

            An interval of a few minutes, then, “Man, look,” cried Tommy, “here comes the sun! Look at ‘er, man. Red as blood!”

“Yes, said Charlie, “red as blood.”

The bloody sun came up through the mist and cast long blue shadows as it looked at the two, lying side by side, even as they had lain twenty three years ago, side by side, the fair-haired and the dark, beneath the same sun. And as they lay, their faces seemed to become the same again, and their countenances were those that had been, and it might have been before, instead of this twenty three years later. And then the mist closed in upon them.

The End

To read earlier parts of this story written by Joan when she was 13 years old, click here for part one, here for part two, here for part three, and here for part four.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,389 other followers

%d bloggers like this: