I did my teen-age years in World War II. War news was a constant. We kept the radio on in our house to hear Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from the rooftops of London, describing the blitz. Newsreel photographers, flying with Allied bombers over Europe, delivered raw footage to waiting planes at Heathrow Airport. The planes, flying dark rooms, would take off for America and fly overnight to New York. Technicians would edit and develop the film during the trans-Atlantic flight and Movietone News would have the footage ready for showing in movie theaters within hours. “Imagine,” we’d marvel. “These pictures were taken only two days ago!”
My high school pal Parker Swan and I would go to the Translux Theater in Boston which featured non-stop newsreel coverage of the war. When bombings of German cities were shown, we’d cheer. After V-E day, when the battle moved to the Pacific, newsreels featured G.I.s using flame throwers to dig Japanese soldiers out of their caves on Iwo Jima and Wake Island. When the enemy came screaming from his dugout, Parker and I would cheer. I sold newspapers, The Globe and Herald, in Harvard Square by the entrance to the subway station. When the A-bomb, about which we had been told nothing, was dropped on Hiroshima, the headline read New Kind of Bomb Devastates Japanese City. Everyone was elated.
War was a way of life for Americans in the early forties. Heroism was expected. Only one soldier was ever executed for cowardice. The year after the conflict ended, I graduated from high school and turned 18. Immediately, I joined the army and, after a few months of basic training, I took a troop train across the country to San Francisco, where I lost my virginity at “Brown’s Hotel… Where You Can Always Get In” and then shipped out for Yokohama. It was late December and we were crowded into a Victory Boat, a converted cargo ship which featured stacks of hammocks four high. I was in the bottom one so there were three young dog faces above me. We sailed along the coast of the Aleutian Islands. The storms were ferocious. The ship would rise up and then slam down. Almost all of us were seasick. The first couple of days out, I was afraid I would die. The next few, I was afraid I wouldn’t. The compartment I slept in was next to the mess. The few G.I.s and crew members who weren’t sick lined up alongside my bunk, waiting to get into the mess hall to eat my food as well as theirs. Some of them whistled cheerfully. As I looked up at their faces I was filled with hatred. I wanted to kill them for the crime of not being as sick as I was.
I managed to get up above board as often as possible, so I could breathe the fresh air and get away from the aromas of the mess hall. They showed a movie every night on deck in the freezing cold. It was “The Black Dahlia starring Dan Duryea. Someone had screwed up and loaded only one film aboard for the six or seven day trip.” I watched it every night. Sometime during the night of December 24th, we crossed the international dateline and woke up on the 26th. That’s the kind of trip it was. The Red Cross gave each of us a little box containing two cookies and a tooth brush.
I spent a year of occupation duty in a devastated Japan, then sailed home and was mustered out. I never had to fire my carbine in anger but my experience in the army and my evenings with Parker Swan watching newsreels at the Translux Theater created profound respect in me for those who had done so. My wife, actress Alley Mills, and I have shown up at the USO station at Los Angeles Airport to say hello to the boys who are passing through on their way somewhere. They love to have their pictures taken with her: “Oh wow, the mom from ‘The Wonder Years!'”
On this day of Troop-A-Thon, I am especially grateful to our service people and will be sure to say an extra little prayer for all of them tonight.