Archives for posts with tag: WWII

​My mom’s older brother Earl lived in Memphis, after he grew up and left home. He worked in the gasoline business and knew all kinds of people, which made it easy for him to find jobs for his little sister. He would go home to visit the folks, then tell my mom he’d found her a job, if she wanted it. She always did. 

Over the years of her life that spanned the time from when she was old enough to work, until she married my daddy, she would go to live with Uncle Earl and his family and work in Memphis. She worked at Sears, filling orders for the catalog department. Another stint saw her at Western Union, slotting telegrams to be delivered. Sometimes she stayed and held her job for quite some time. Other times one of her parents would become sick and she’d quit to go home to take care of them. If she stayed very long, she might simply become homesick and decide it was time to go back to be with and help her aging parents in general. She was a good and kind person, selfless and loyal.

In the early 1940s, she waitressed at a restaurant at the Memphis Airport. Her job included taking meals onto planes and readying them for in flight dining. Passengers went to the restaurant to grab a quick meal or snack, before the next leg of their journey. One of her most memorable experiences was serving a Coca Cola to Bob Hope. Not one to get starry eyed, she just said he was very nice to her and she  treated him like everyone else. Another time her cousin Hera Jane, who lived in California, recognized her cousin unexpectedly as her waitress. They chatted and caught up, as Hera waited to continue her flight.

Her most memorable experience during her time as a waitress at the airport was far more profound than serving movie stars and a chance encounter with a long unseen relative. One day the people in the restaurant heard a terrible roaring from the sky. They rushed outside to try to see what could cause such a thing. As they stood gazing upward, a veritable cloud of airplanes passed overhead. They stared, awestruck and not a little afraid, as many bombers came in to refuel. They knew something awful must have happened. Soon enough word spread. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, all but obliterated our Pacific fleet, and killed many of “the boys”.

It was December 7, 1941. A day that FDR would soon indelibly embed in the collective world mind. “A day that will live in infamy.”

Those who lived through that day, that time, remember where they were, when they heard the news of the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor. Back home, farmers, housewives, store clerks, and, yes, waitresses were going about their daily lives . They heard about it eventually on the radio. Or someone who heard told them. Back then people gathered around their radios, for the news of their lives. It was their internet, before the internet even was. People would stand shocked and grieving around parked cars, listening together to their world falling apart.

My mom, with her adventurous spirit and deep love for her country, stood many miles from the place she loved most, among new friends and fleeting strangers, face turned with fear and courage toward the waves of bombers that ushered in a new and difficult time for the American people. Instead of being informed by a distant, crackling voice on the radio, my mom was a bystander to history.

Funny how you can remember something from childhood one way, and then a long time later realize you’re only remembering the surface. When I was young my daddy always insisted I go to the annual Memorial Day Service at a nearby Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It wasn’t even “our” church. It was where his parents were buried.

I dreaded it every year. Not just because I always got antsy about sitting quietly, while adults droned on and on about…anything. It was mostly because I was expected to be…well, I’m not sure what they called me. Being a flower girl is a wedding thing, but that’s essentially what I was. I wore a pretty pastel dress and walked down the aisle, scattering flower petals as I went. I was the opening of the ceremony and lived in fear of tripping, or dropping my basket of petals, or starting before the music did, or heaven forbid all of that in one fell swoop of falling, swooping, out of sync aisle marching, flying flowers disaster. Apparently living in fear tempts fate to go the other way around, because nothing bad ever happened. Nothing bad at all, except that I was so nervous and focused on performing perfectly that I entirely missed the point. The whole thing hadn’t been designed to make me a ball of walking stage fright. It wasn’t about me at all.

I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t until quite recently that something reminded me of those petal strewing walks down a church aisle and for some reason I started really thinking about it. We often see things so differently through our adult eyes. Things a child knows to be true may be vastly expanded upon once the child matures enough for even a little clarity and wisdom. I was suddenly struck by memories of the stillness in that church, the sincerity and solemnity of the people there. While I worried that I’d make a fool of myself, the other people in that lovely big white building were thinking of the loved ones who were no longer sitting beside them, holding their hand, wiping away their tears. They were remembering their beloved, their fallen, their lost.

I’d always assumed my daddy was sitting with such quiet dignity, sometimes with a hint of a smile, sometimes near tears, because he was so proud of me. Which I’m sure he was. But it went far beyond that on that particular day, in that place, with those people, most of whom we barely knew. There were other people there as well. The cemetery was full of them. Only they were memories.

I mentioned already that my paternal grandparents were buried there. Some of their close family too. Shadowy mental figures for me, of people I’d never met and knew little about. There was one though, with a reputation that transcended a mere name on a tombstone. My daddy’s little brother who went off to war and never came back. I wish I could have known this brave sailor, who was lost at sea and memorialized with a headstone over an empty grave.

J. B. McCage, Gunners Mate Second Class. U.S. Navy.

I don’t know much about him. When my daddy, Gerald McCage, was 12 years old, his father died in a car accident. He left school to become the man of the house, farm the land, and help his mother raise his younger brother, sister, and a niece. All that responsibility kept him at home when WWII broke out, but J. B. went to war.

It’s my understanding that he was lost at sea on August 23, 1943, when his ship collided with an ammunition ship near New York, his body never found. I heard the story of a nearby banker learning of the telegram about to be delivered and volunteering to take it out to the farm himself, out of sympathy and respect for my grandmother and the family. Even before I ever wrote a word of fiction, I would imagine the banker in his nice car and business suit driving along the road, billowing plume of summer dust trailing in his wake. He would pull into the  driveway, step out and put on his hat, only to take it back off to break the news, yellow telegram in hand. My grandmother would emerge onto the porch, perhaps in an apron and dusting flour from her fingers to shake hands, then those fingers flying to her lips on a wave of grief. What a horrible time that was, for the world at large and particularly for the ones left behind to live in dread of those fragile pieces of paper that changed their world forever.

No, those afternoons in that church were not about me at all. My daddy was there to honor his brother. So was I. I just wouldn’t realize it until I was too old to offer my daddy the words of comfort that would have made his heart just a little lighter. As it is, I can only hope that having his little girl there with him, taking part in the ceremony that commemorated his sailor lost at sea made it a little more bearable for him. Helped remind him of what his brother fought for. And that he knew me well enough to understand that someday I would grow up to be very proud to have been the little girl who scattered the petals in remembrance of her brave Uncle J. B., on a Memorial Day in a new century.

***Lots of spoilers. If you haven’t seen Unbroken and don’t want to know what happened in it, stop reading and run away!***

I watched Unbroken last night and I’m still thinking about it. Some movies burrow deep into a viewer’s brain and stay there for a long time. Especially the ones that tell unbelievable stories that really happened.

Unbroken shows Louis Zamperini being bullied as a boy. It shows him ridiculed as a teen. His brother encourages him to train as a runner. He believes in him. Eventually Zamperini believes in himself enough to become an Olympian. War disrupts his life. His disabled plane is ditched in the pacific and he is one of three survivors. Two come through many weeks of unbearable conditions, from storms to menacing sharks, from attempting to eat a raw bird to beating a shark at its own game, they conquer incredible odds, only to be rescued by the Japanese and forced to endure torture and deprivation at the hands of a cruel prisoner of war lord. The Bird takes particular sadistic pleasure in tormenting his pet Olympic athlete, inflicting beatings and endurance feats that would kill almost anyone. But not Zamperini. He survives it all to come home to his family and eventually marries.

This reads like a lot of movie. A full story, all inclusive. And it is. It’s a wonderful, beautiful, awful, inspiring movie that’s difficult to watch at times and impossible to forget. Yet, all I’ve written about it so far merely beat out the gist of the story. There is a wealth of undercurrent, of subtle emotions, and such powerful impressions that it’s like a calm ocean roiling with so much life and heart and guts and grit beneath its surface that it’s like watching a dozen stories at once. Louis Zamperini, the Italian misfit. The runner. The soldier. The survivor. The survivor, again. The survivor, yet again.

I came across a documentary about him on TV several months ago, so I knew some of the story the movie didn’t cover. Like how he reneged on his promise to God to devote his life to him if he survived his ordeal in the lifeboat. For a while. He went wild after he got home, plagued by PTSD and was on a horrible path, until he attended a Billy Graham crusade and turned his life around. All that is understandable.

What is not understandable is how he was the man he was throughout his wartime ordeal. How does a human being, who at that time is not blessed with a major faith in God, survive what Louis Zamperini survived? Most people, period, would have died at the first ordeal, yet this man kept on and on, day after day, until he came home. I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s not understandable. It is, however, incredibly admirable. And encouraging. And inspiring.

Unbroken is Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut. A very impressive first, indeed. I can’t wait to see what story she shows us next.

Unbroken Trailer

This story of a Paris apartment left untouched for 68 years is the kind of thing read about in novels.  At times remarkable events do happen in real life, especially when aided by the urgency of history in progress. A woman hurriedly fled her home to escape the Nazis. In her haste she left behind a tangible snapshot of turn of the century life.  A beautiful apartment filled with beautiful things. There are layers of awe frozen in time here. Awe in the lavish furnishings and accessories with which she was able to surround herself, awe in the history held captive so perfectly by time, and awe in the almost palpable fear that drove her to abandon such a gorgeous and well loved home with little time to spare. The pictures of the abandoned rooms made me feel each of these things in progression, even as I was both envious of the life she must have led and horrified by the ill tides of the war that drove her from it.

Most of the movies I watch are ones I pick because one (or more) of my favorite actors is in it.  I just watched Age of Heroes solely because Sean Bean stars, after grabbing it previously viewed when I saw his face on the box.

Since he’s the reason I watched it, I’ll start by saying he is as wonderful as in everything else I’ve seen him in. He also looks amazing, with dark, close cropped hair and in the dashing WWII uniforms of the British major he portrays, wearing the period costumes so well he looks as if he were born for them. He carries off the challenges, grit, and courage of his character so beautifully that he disappears into the major and makes me forget the actor embedded within. That is the kind of talent that still makes me cry over Boromir, even when I just come across LotR:FotR in passing on TV.

The movie itself is a harrowing account of a British commando team with a vital mission to gather intel on enemy radar technology. I didn’t realize until I read the description under the trailer on YouTube that it’s a true story involving Ian Flemming.

Among the horrors of war lie instances of heroism, courage, and perseverance. The gorgeous mountain scenery is a breathtaking contrast to the deadly nature of the mission.

This movie is not for everyone. It’s brutally violent in places and contains strong language. I don’t think this story would have been adequately told without either. It has a very gritty, real feel to it. Not the kind of thing the word enjoy feels right for, it demands attention and respect, and leaves me thoughtful and impressed.

Age of Heroes trailer

An elderly couple sat near me while I used the WiFi at McDonald’s. Only after I’d put my netbook away did the wife half initiate a computer conversation. Talk of email, glitches, and various software related learning curves segued into a wonderful time during which the busy present fell away as talk turned to the past.

I noticed the nearly 90 year old husband half’s WWII veteran cap,
and proceeded to accidentally refer to him as a WWI veteran! He bellowed at me: WWII!!! I apologized. We all laughed, and he told me his war stories.

So I sat for a timeless time learning some things I’d never heard before. How the processing of draftees from one geographical area worked. What it was like to be on the very brink of embarking on a highly potential one way trip to the D-Day invasion, but called back to serve as a medical technician elsewhere at the last minute. “42,000 men lost that day. I’m the luckiest…” How wonderful yet melancholy the tiniest of reminders of home can be when you’re so very far away from it. How much it means to have served and to still be appreciated for it.

Much of that was spoken aloud. Some only in the far away look in his eyes and the acknowledgment in the gift of a smile. I love history and I love learning about it from people who lived it. People who lived remarkable lives, yet tell of them with humility and quiet strength.

Many veterans of that terrible war won’t speak of it. Some cannot bring themselves to. Others offer the gift of their knowledge. I am grateful for what they’ve done, and just as grateful that their courage and strength are in large part responsible for the freedoms we enjoy today, more than half a century later.