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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.”

Armistice Day: The Fascination of World War II in England and America

Today is November 11 when Armistice Day is commemorated in many countries to remember the end of World War I in 1918.  World War II stems out of the aftermath of World War I and both wars continue to haunt Europe.

The fascination for World War II plays itself out differently in England than in America. When my husband and two children and I were living in London 2003-2004, there was a photo exhibit in the National Theatre called “The Atlantic Wall Today” with photos by Ianthe Ruthven.

Ianthe Ruthven’s “Amfreville Battery, Normandy”

Ruthven visited German gun emplacements in Normandy that had been built as part of Hitler and Albert Speer’s “Fortress Europe.”  Now they look like medieval castles or temples, covered over with lichen, ivy, and graffiti.

Here’s another of Ruthven’s amazing photographs.

Ianthe Ruthven’s Tourlaville Battery, Normandy

On one gun emplacement, someone had scrawled, “Do you think I’m sexy?”  World War II isn’t “sexy,” especially for those in Europe, Asia, and north Africa, since fighting and suffering actually took place there.

The vestiges of WWII you can find on every street in London.  The house we rented was in an authentically grim Victorian street right by Waterloo Station, in an area that was once ignored and now gentrified.  The flats across the street had been bombed out during WWII; you can tell because the brick is a different color from the rest of the buildings on the street.

This is our beloved Whittlesey Street where we lived in London. The street was bombed on the north side of the street.

The memory of a famous boxing ring we passed right by every day when we took our kids to school had been destroyed by a V2 rocket in 1942.  It is commemorated with a plaque.  World War II is geographically present all over the UK.

Here you can see listed the V2 explosions. The one that destroyed “the Ring” I mention about seems to be described in this entry as “Blackfriars Bridge Road junction with the Cut E side.”  The Cut is a major thoroughfare.

We passed The Ring everyday on our way to our kids’ schools. It was destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt.

The visceral death and destruction on the American home front was minimal.  Not, of course, for Japanese-Americans in internment camps, or German-Americans or Italian-Americans likewise sequestered, not for African Americans who were prevented from drinking from the same water bubbler as whites even though they were being sent over to put their lives on the line, not for the sailors torpedoed as merchant marines in the North Atlantic—no, the story of WWII is not “sexy” for all these people.  And not sexy for those who died, far from home.

If you want to find out more about what Armistice Day is, please look at this post of mine.

Guest Blog Post at A Bookish Affair: Our Fascination with World War II

Please read my guest blog post at A Bookish Affair about our fascination with World War II.

And read the latest review of Home Front Girl  at A Bookish Affair:  “[C]ompulsively readable.”

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