Archives for posts with tag: World War II

My mother was a beautiful young woman. These photos are evidence of that. She looked like a super model, before there were super models. I think these were taken when she was in her late teens and/or early twenties.

I recently came across this one. I kept looking at it, not entirely sure it was really her, in spite of the fact that she’d written her name and 40s on the back. Most of the hundreds of pictures she left for me to enjoy showed her beauty staying with her throughout her nearly century of life. I think this may be the worst of them all.

I just couldn’t understand how she could look so bad. Almost like a walking cadaver. Skin stretched across prominent facial bones, hollow eyes, accompanied by a haunted gaze. She looked as if she’d walked through hell.

Eventually I realized she had. The 1940s. That was the answer. She was living through World War II. This must be several years after the lovely, carefree images. She’s standing in Aunt Pearl’s yard, which means it was likely when she lived with Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dick, while the sisters worked at a nearby arsenal, making bombs. Risking their lives every day. A bus came to get them for the ride to what might have been the last day of their lives. One accident is all it would take. Living with that alone, though with such strength and courage, was enough to take a toll.

Even if it was before she worked at the arsenal, the general wartime was nightmarish. She told me that after Pearl Harbor was attacked, they were terrified that the Japanese would bomb even so far inland. So she was already accustomed to living in a state of high fear. 

Add the deprivation of food scarcity. Meat, butter, and sugar were rationed. They had to adjust to the butter substitute margarine, adding the yellow coloring that came with it to make it resemble real butter better than it did without it. They learned to make butterless, sugarless, eggless cakes and “apple” pies out of crackers, sacrificing every way they could think of to help the war effort. That would explain her newfound gaunt look. She didn’t eat a lot anyway, so paring down her natural diet would have been drastic.

Even her vibrant smile was different. The phrase “Carrying the weight of the world.” comes to mind. It’s said that the people who lived through World War II are a remarkable generation. They were. A few remain and still are. They always will be, preserved forever, I hope, in the amber of historical memory and generational family stories.

I’m happy to say that with her innate resillience she was regaining her natural beauty, by the time my parents were married several years after the war. This picture captured them in a solemn moment, perhaps trying to portray the importance of the occasion. They look strong and healthy, with a new layer of maturity brought to them by surviving such hardship, as they embark on their new life together 

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A pale blue sky laid its canopy over the field blanketed mountain, as I approached a special place in Rising Fawn, Georgia. I had hiked down to the waterfall at Cloudland Canyon another time, without knowing the area was the home of a remarkable hero. When I did know, it was arranged for me to meet the man known then more by word of mouth than any prominent fame.

I was a little nervous. Congressional Medal of Honor recipients are a rare breed, which makes meeting one a rare honor. As soon as you are in their presence, any nervousness melts away in the warmth of your welcome. Stepping into the home of Desmond and Dorothy Doss was like visiting grandparents you’d never met. Complete with cookies and a cool drink.

As is usually the case with true heroes, Desmond Doss was a humble man. Exuding kindness, he offered a handshake and a sweet smile that in no way diminished his reputation as the
hero of Hacksaw Ridge. I can understand why he met his admiring public by appointment. Being prepared insured the experience would in no way disappoint those who made a special trip to meet him and shake his hand. I think, perhaps, it also gave him time to breathe and ready himself for the inevitable trip back in time that visitors would set him off on.

There was the matter of his cochlear implant, as well. It was explained that facing him directly to speak would help the marvelous technology to pick up sound and help him hear. It was a bit disconcerting for me and probably less than comfortable for him, but he made no complaints, just praise for the device.

He gave a sort of informal presentation and answered questions, with dignity and grace and the far off look in his eye that is so common among the WWII veterans who are able to share their stories. Being in his presence was a quiet, sobering, unforgettable experience. One that I’ll never forget. I’m glad to be able to remember it once again and share it on this Veteran’s Day.

I just watched Fury. Wow! It’s tempting to just leave it at that, because some movies almost defy coherent reaction. There’s a visceral gut level to this one that leaves me feeling as if I just fought an incredible WWII battle. Though all movies do it to some extent, Fury seriously transports its viewers into a 2+ hour experience that feels like a tank crew ride along. In the time it takes to watch the movie, and for some time afterward, I was a silent partner in the horror of fighting in a world war.

Honestly, the first part was a bit of a slog, though there were parts that were incredibly intense and interesting, with incongruously gorgeous imagery. Then the last hour and a half or so hit, with all the power behind a single remaining tank and the soldiers who practically live in it. At one point Brad Pitt’s character, the tough top sergeant with the heart of the great hero he (and his men) becomes says the tank is his home. Watching what they go through, that sentiment is understandable. Their mantra “Best job I ever had.” is as well. Leader and troops, friends, family, a tight unit that sticks with their “Top” even when he decides to stay with their “busted” tank and take on what seems like a small army of SS.

What transpires from that point
onward is one of the most brutal, awful, and terrifying battles I’ve seen portrayed in movies. Of course that’s the only ones of this kind I’ve seen in any way. I wasn’t even born at the time of World War II, and as I watched Fury I was so very grateful for that. Man or woman, seasoned veteran or reluctant soldier then amazing hero like young gunner Norman, it hits me hard as I watch such movies that people should never have to be asked to fight such battles and wars like that should never happen. The heads of Human beings weren’t made to end in an explosive shower of pink wet haze that’s all that’s left of brain matter… and its protective head…after a machine gun spray blankets its mark. Yet countless thousands have done just that. And so awfully much more.

It’s good to be shown such real life depictions of real life war and be reminded just how fortunate any of us are who have only experienced it through books and movies and the stories of veterans. And it’s good to be forced to remember that so many heroes did the incredible things they did to fight unspeakably heinous enemies. Sometimes a movie is meant to be more than the term implies. It becomes unforgettable. That it’s based on a series of true stories makes it all the more so.

On a lighter note, as Brad Pitt ages into his talent I’m struck by the way he’s becoming the modern day Clark Gable to George Clooney’s Cary Grant. More than an undeniably pretty face, Pitt is the kind of actor who makes me seek out his movies. Shia LaBeouf too is coming into his own. Proven by the fact that I can see him in movies now and not once think he’s Sam Witwicky! Jon Bernthal? He’s good, but I still get flashes of Shane from The Walking Dead. Time will fix that too most likely.

At it’s end Fury leaves images burned into my brain, like a TV screen briefly etched onto my retinas. I can only hope they fade away as fast, and leave only memories of a difficult movie to watch that I’m glad I’ve seen.

Fury–Official Trailer

Today we think of those who serve to keep us safe. Past, present, and most likely far into the future. Conflict, operation, outright war…these events are  part of our collective memory and those who fought their way through them are the strengthening threads that run, often unnoticed, throughout our daily lives. The participants have been revered, honored, and sadly sometimes vilified.

I’ve been fortunate enough to know several veterans of foreign wars. Young and old alike they share that enigmatic stare that seems to look back, to the future, and deep inside simultaneously. They hate what they had to do, yet are happy to have served…and survived. They are all heroes, with or without the visible medals that mark them as such.

There is another group that I’ll call the shadow veterans. In modern times they are the families of active duty soldiers. The glue that holds the heart in place, whatever may come. In the past these shadow veterans were joined by circumstances at home that changed the fabric of reality and demanded more than love, support, and tears.

Ordinary citizens who were never drafted except by their sense of duty. I’m not sure how widely spread awareness is today of the women who risked their lives during World War II right here at home. Sometimes they’re lumped into the larger, more familiar term Rosie the Riveter. I don’t know if there was an official term or even admiring nickname for these brave women.

I do know more about them than most. I grew up in an area with a munitions plant, and heard the words “I (or She) worked at the arsenal.” my entire life. Long before I was born, as World War II raged across Europe, many farm boys and their entire healthy male family marched onto troop ships and set sail for the front lines. And many, many of the women they left behind quietly went to work assembling the munitions that made the technology of World War II combat possible.

The danger was great, the risk high, and the courage phenomenal. They worked in what amounted to a giant bomb on a daily basis, knowing full well that every one of those days was a deadly accident waiting to happen. Why would they risk their lives like that? I’m sure any extra money was some part of the motivation in times of rationing and scarcity, but the refrain I heard from reminiscing family, friends, and neighbor ladies was invariably “To help our boys”. Danger and risk of life was never mentioned, unless they were pressed for an answer on why they did it. “But weren’t you scared?” “Of course I was, but it had to be done.”  “Did you think about what those bombs would do?” “Of course. But I tried not to. It was hard…but it had to be done” That old phrase from the movies never rang more true.

For the boys.

Those ladies forged lifelong friendships. Working side by side in trenches made not of mud and blood, but of metal and TNT. They went on to be mothers, grandmothers, teachers, doctors, and the quiet elderly neighbors who smile knowingly at The History Channel and could recite the precise millimeter measurements of specific antique shells…if only someone was interested and knew to ask. Those sweet elderly faces, lined with wrinkles and a hint of steel.

Sometimes even the children of such great women say the words, “Oh, yeah, she worked at the arsenal.”, without ever having given real thought to what they meant. They don’t realize how proud they should be of these quiet heroes.

So, today, I’m reminded and I’m proud. They did it for the boys. The boys we hold in remembrance today, and hopefully throughout the year. Those boys who became some of the veterans we revere, and the girls who are veterans as well. Largely unknown and unsung, but heroic all the more for it.

Almost everyone has heard of Mad King Ludwig’s outrageously elaborate and extravagant Neuschwanstein Castle. Even not knowing of it doesn’t keep a person from being somewhat familiar, since it was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Fairy-tale Castle.

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Perched atop a towering ridge, and framed by trees that seem to cradle it protectively, this snow white beauty stirs the imagination, the romantic heart, and a combination of envy and a very slight wave of revulsion at the thought of the massive riches spent to bring it into existence as a testament to the folly of one man.

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In direct contrast is the stunning natural beauty of this Alpine lake. Shades of blue, green, and white paint a still life every bit as glorious  as all the castles ever built. The spot where I took this picture was reached by a busy path taken by noisy tourists climbing by foot or horse drawn carriage. Yet along the
rocky shores…silence. Serene…majestic, indescribable beauty.

And then we have the not so beautiful. Imagine driving along through quiet countryside. Trees, mountains, lowlying clouds. Peaceful and enjoyable. Then you suddenly notice a strange, almost alien structure looming in the distance.  You draw closer, but cannot fathom what it could be. So of course you hunt it down. It turns out to be the dry, snowless bones of the ski jumps from the 1936 Winter Olympics.

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Whoa! You are duly impressed. But an ominous fist feints, at the very edge of your gut. You go looking further.

You find this:

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The fist punches. Hard.

This is the area where the ice games took place. Where Adolph Hitler presided with pride on the cusp of a war we cannot and should not ever forget.

I stood there taking this picture, the shadowy images I’d seen in historical documentaries superimposed over the scene I saw with my own eyes, barely breathing. I wondered if he had walked where I stood. Knew he had certainly been mere yards away. I felt sickened by his story and awed by history.

I went to Bavaria to see castles and mountains. I found castles and mountains…but instead of the Alpine yodeling one could reasonably expect, I also found Hitler’s echoes.