The Unsung Heroes of World War II

By Fyne, Robert | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1979 | Go to article overview

The Unsung Heroes of World War II


Fyne, Robert, Literature/Film Quarterly


It was over thirty years ago that a group of seemingly-embarrassed, high-ranking, Japanese officials- many of them appearing incongruous decked out in their formal attire, outfits which included, of all things, top hats and walking sticks- stood demurely in the hot morning sun on the starboard side of the United States battleship Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. Here, these worried delegates listened anxiously as the American war hero and newly-appointed Occupation Director, five-star General Douglas MacArthur, still puffing on his worn-out corncob pipe, dictated the terms of surrender and the conditions of peace. A few minutes later, these Japanese dignitaries- all handpicked by their Emperor- affixed their signatures on the Surrender Document and on that moment, an event witnessed by hundreds of stern-faced American GIs jammed into the background, the Second World War was declared finally over.

A few days after this ceremonious occasion, the events of this global conflict (officially, fifty-six nations had issued declarations of war in one form or another) gradually became part of the mainstream of U. S. history as millions of happy Americans, sitting comfortably in their living rooms some 5,000 miles away, began to savor the material goods and new prosperity that the Peace was slowly bringing.

It had been a strange time for the American people. They had followed the hostilities for those four long years in newspapers and magazines (even with the censorship), had clustered around their radios listening intently to the latest news bulletins or messages-of-morale from their wartime President, FDR, their leader, who insisted on unconditional surrender. They had crowded themselves into the neighborhood motion picture theaters- the "shows," as they were so often called- to watch their favorite male stars, now members of Uncle Sam's armed forces, strangle some inept Nazi guard with his bare hands, throw the body over the cliff, pilfer the new super-duper German defense plans, rescue his girlfriend from some dank cellar, and then, blow up Gestapo Headquarters, where, inside, Erich von Stroheim- complete with monocle and suede gloves- and his ilk were planning the enslavement of the entire world.

With equal candor, the Japanese were likewise decimated when such intrepid heroes as Randolph Scott- having changed his cowboy regalia for Marine Corps khaki-would lead an attack team on some remote Pacific island, firing his machine gun from the hip with deadly accuracy while tossing hand grenades into Japanese pillboxes almost the same way that Bob Feller would throw his fastball, a year or two later, into the much publicized mitt of catcher Frankie Hays over in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.

About a decade later- when a new generation was growing up- the events of World War II had all but vanished from newspaper and magazine reports because, by now, another war- The Cold War- was in full swing and millions of Americans were being warned about toe dangers of Communism and the evils of Uncle Joe and his gang of godless Bolsheviks. Radio had been replaced by television and many of the neighborhood "shows," now anachronisms of a new medium, were gradually closing down, their innards being transformed into supermarkets or tire storage warehouses.

As television emerged as the predominant medium in popular culture, it only followed that many Americans, formerly too young to remember the scenario of the Second World War, would soon learn about this conflict by watching the numerous propaganda films-those motion pictures during the War which glorified the Allied Forces, and, at the same time, vilified the Axis Powers-that were being shown time and time again on the TV screen. Television was teaching this new generation toe whereabouts of such obscure places as Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Casino, Rotterdam, Casablanca, Makin Island, Dieppe, or Bataan; television dropped strange-sounding sobriquets- nicknames of many American heroes- right in the center of the living room floor: "Howling Mad" Smith, "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell, and "Pappy" Chennault. …

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