My World War II
In May and August of this year, we will observe seventy-five years since VE Day and VJ Day. I was born in November 1955, ten years after the Second World War ended. But WWII lingered on in the culture and defined the world I grew up in. When people said The War, they didn’t mean the more recent Korean or the then-current Vietnam War. They meant the “Big One.”
In the ‘60s, Hollywood kept fighting the war. Sink the Bismarck! (1960), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Longest Day (1962), The Great Escape (1963), PT 109 (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Battle of Britain (1969). These movies and more came to my young attention between my fifth and fifteenth years. I even saw some of them: The Guns of Navarone at the drive-in with Ricky Cunningham and his dad. The Battle of Britain on TV. It had way too much chatter and not enough flying for an airplane nut like me.
As an airplane nut, I spent my pre-teen years building plastic models of World War II warplanes: P-51 Mustang, P-40 Tomahawk, P-38 Lightning, P-39 Aircobra, F4F Wildcat, SBD Dauntless, Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-26 Marauder, Handley Page Halifax, Messerschmitt Bf-109, Focke Wulf Fw-190, Messerschmitt 110. Two of the first words I learned in German were Luftwaffe and Jagdstaffel(“fighter squadron”).
I loved the beautiful shapes of these machines, and I imagined the thrill of speed and the gallantry of dogfights. I did not imagine the carnage wreaked by flak, 50-caliber bullets, and 500-pound bombs. Shot-down planes and cities 30,000 feet below were magically unpeopled by my childish mind.
My friends and I played War a lot, always World War II, usually Europe. We’d either play “big guys,” toting toy guns, or “little guys,” with small plastic soldiers. I didn’t know a kid who didn’t have at least one set of these figurines, usually army green, but sometimes gray (Germans) or tan (Japanese). These manikins were firing rifles (standing, kneeling, or prone), wielding mine detectors and flamethrowers, and shouldering bazookas. The plastic tanks, half-tracks, and jeeps were usually out of scale with the humans. We emitted war sounds, usually voiceless bilabial plosives followed by velar fricatives, voiceless for rifles and machine guns, voiced for shells and grenades.
Playing “big guys,” we always had to decide whether to be Americans and their enemies (“Krauts”), or let everyone be American and just imagine our foes. I preferred the latter: there usually weren’t enough of us for two squads, and it eliminated endless arguments over who killed (“got”) who. With everyone on the same team, it was easier to devise adventures.
We modeled these adventures on the TV series Combat!, which ran from 1962 to 1967. The show followed a squad of US Army soldiers through France after D-Day. Once my dad took me out for a birthday dinner at Vanelli’s, a “fancy” restaurant on Woodward Avenue. As we were leaving, I saw the closing credits of Combat! on a TV in the lobby. I felt bad I’d missed it, birthday or no birthday. That’s how much I loved that show.
Recently, I’ve watched a few Combat! episodes on YouTube, and it holds up well. Robert Altman directed half of the first season. The series didn’t glorify war, but portrayed it as hard and tragic. Difficult decisions, not mere heroism, shaped the plots. In retrospect, I think I learned about leadership from Lt. Hanley, played by Rick Jason, and Sgt. Saunders, played by Vic Morrow.
One day I was watching the show in the family room. An American soldier huddling by a house lobbed a hand grenade into the window above him. The explosion sent a German soldier somersaulting out the window. “Cool!” I exclaimed. My usually reserved father had just stepped into the room. Calmly but firmly, he said, “There’s nothing cool about someone getting killed.”
Apparently, twenty years after the war was not too soon for WWII sitcoms. I watched a lot of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71), set in the fictional German POW camp Stalag 13. (Later I realized the show drew on The Great Escape and Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.) Colonel Hogan, an American pilot, led a crew of Allied prisoners in resistance and sabotage against the Germans. Every week they outwitted the Kommandant Colonel Klink (played by Werner Klemperer) and the bumbling guard Sgt. Schulz (John Banner).
Whenever haughty General Burkhalter (Leon Askin) inspected the camp, the POWs managed to distract him from Klink’s and Schulz’s failures. Incompetent Nazis were good for their operations. Years later, my father-in-law (a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge) remarked that if the Germans had been that stupid, it wouldn’t have taken so long to win the war. Ironically, Klemperer, Banner, and Askin were all Jewish émigrés from Germany and Austria who had served in the US Army in WWII.
We lived with personal echoes of The War as well. My mother’s brother Jimmy was killed in 1943 when his submarine, the USS Amberjack, was sunk in the South Pacific. My mother never got over it, and absent Uncle Jimmy was a presence in our lives. My father was too young to have served, but his father, in his forties, had worked for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes.
In the 1970s, learning German in high school and majoring in German studies in college, I fleshed out my rudimentary knowledge of the European war. The first piece of literature I read in German was Wolfgang Borchert’s short story “The Bread,” which depicts hunger after the war. The first novel I read in German was Heinrich Böll’s House without Guardians, about families whose loved ones had fallen.
Studying German in the ‘70s and ‘80s meant studying The War. Böll’s family saga Billiards at Half Past Nine, Günter Grass’s anti-epic The Tin Drum, Siegfried Lenz’s novel of inner immigration The German Lesson, and Borchert’s play The Man Outside, about a traumatized returnee from the Eastern front: these texts and others created a world in my mind of both German culpability and German suffering. Films like The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), The Tin Drum (1979), Germany, Pale Mother (1980), Das Boot (1981), and The White Rose (1982) tried to deal with guilt, destruction, trauma, and crimes against humanity.
The first time I visited Berlin, in 1975, the war had been over for thirty years. Its traces were everywhere, from the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, to the hulk of Anhalter Station, to the prison memorial at Plötzensee, to pockmarks left in stone. The harsh division of the city, a bizarre by-product of the settlement of the war, was a new form of unsettlement.
The peaceful, shady avenues of Charlottenburg, where my student group was staying in the House of Political Education, made nineteen-year-old me nostalgic for something I never knew: the world that was pulverized by World War II. Now, forty-five years later, with the living memory of The War nearly obliterated by mere time, I feel nostalgic for that nostalgia.
21 April 2020