How Closely “Casablanca” Hit Home

Today in History, November 26, 1942:

The motion picture “Casablanca” premieres in New York City.  The movie that would become a screen classic would be released to theaters in the remainder of the country on January 23, 1943.

The film was set in Casablanca, Morocco in December, 1941.  This time frame is important to the viewer if not the players.  Rick Blaine is an exiled American who owns a high-end bar.  Between continuously matching wits with the local French authorities and Nazis, Rick manages to barter for immigration papers for those fleeing the Nazis and to deal with an old romance interest who re-enters his life…Ilsa.  “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

The film is at heart a romance, but at the same time a gritty war thriller.  Humphrey Bogart was well accustomed to playing the heavy, and did so well.  Ingrid Bergman did an excellent job playing the femme fatale, but by the time the show is over, one is hard pressed not to find Claude Rains’ portrayal of Captain Louis Renault to be the most compelling.

The plethora of one-liners definitely added to place Casablanca at the top of any “greatest” list, even 75 years later.  Near the end of the film, Rick and Louis are caught at the airport by Nazi SS Major Strasser.  Louis ends up shooting the Major.  As Louis’ troops rush up in response to the shot, Louis says hastily, “Major Strasser’s been shot.  Round up the usual suspects.”

It is important to note the film was released less than a year after the Pearl Harbor attack at a time when the question of who would be victorious was still a very open discussion.  Those viewing the movie most likely had fathers, brothers and sons fighting on a steaming, miserable island named Guadalcanal or on ships in the same theater.  Less than a month earlier (November 8) American soldiers and sailors took part in the landings of Operation Torch assaulting French North Africa.  This would include fighting the Nazis and the Vichy French (French sympathetic to or under the thumb of the Nazis.)  These battles would include Morocco and the Naval Battle of Casablanca between Allied, German and Vichy French naval forces.

All of this was the backdrop for the premiere of Casablanca.  How much more real, how much more emotion, must have been involved seeing it for the first time in 1942.

Halsey Takes Command – Its All About Attitude

Today in History, October 18, 1942:

Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey is named commander of the South Pacific forces.

Things had not been going well after the invasion of Guadalcanal; a series of losses due to indecision by the previous commander, Admiral Ghormley, had left the troops demoralized.

CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific) Chester Nimitz knew the man for the job and appointed Halsey. Halsey was a no nonsense, get er done leader.

He had issued orders to his task force to shoot first and ask questions later if they spotted Japanese ships or aircraft…on November 28, 1941, ten days before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

He was famously quoted as saying, “Before we’re done with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.” His operational order for his command was simple: “Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more Japs!” In retrospect, this attitude made be considered harsh or even racist. But during the largest conflict in human history, it was all about winning.

The demoralized Sailors and Marines serving on and around Guadalcanal had a sudden burst of confidence when they heard Halsey was their new boss. Things turned around almost immediately. The people under Halsey’s command knew he was willing to take chances for them, and they returned the sentiment.

“Operation Drumbeat”

Today in History, July 19, 1942:

Admiral Karl Donitz is forced to call off “Operation Drumbeat”, recalling Nazi U-Boats assigned to the American coast.

In the months after America’s entry into the war, there were no convoys along the coast and coastal cities did not engage in “black outs”. This meant merchentmen sailing the American coastline were sillouetted by city lights, making them easy targets.

Donitz ordered the long range submarines he had at hand to attack merchant shipping along the coast, and they sank 297 merchantmen by June.

The Americans finally got a convoy system in place, utilizing destroyers and patrol craft. As it became increasingly difficult for U-Boats to prey on US merchants, and as the patrol craft began taking the fight to the Nazis, Donitz called his subs off, sending them back to the North and Mid-Atlantic.

Women’s Army Corps

Today in History, May 15, 1942:

President Franklin Roosevelt signs a bill passed the previous day creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

The bill had been put forward by Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers in mid-1941, who had seen women volunteer in the first World War…on their own dime and without compensation or benefits. The bill lingered until after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when it was taken more seriously.

The many women who served as WACS and WAVES (Navy) during WWII were paid and received benefits, although not as much as the men. It would be decades before they received pensions.

Their service was to be in non-combat roles…secretarial, air traffic control, ferrying aircraft, and hundreds of other positions.

While the inclusion of the hundreds of thousands of women in the military was a huge step forward for a nation which had only given women the vote two decades before, it was still repleat with gender bias. Women could not command men.

The move also was born of necessity, rather than revolutionary thinking. It had the full support of the Army’s commanding General, George C. Marshall, who testified before Comgress on behalf of the legislation.

Marshall expected the “Two-Ocean War” to quickly overwhelm the nation’s ability to provide “manpower”. He believed women already trained in administrative jobs would be more efficient and effective than men.

While the women served in “non-combat” roles as operators, etc, you can’t serve in a combat zone without the risks of combat. WACS were killed in action. One source indicated 16.

American Patrol & The Girl I Left Behind Me

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Today in History, April 2, 1942:

In Hollywood, California, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra record their version of “American Patrol.”  The tune was originally written in 1885 by F. W. Meacham, but Miller’s orchestra would add swing and jazz to the already inspiring instrumental.

This would make it representative and nearly synonymous with the jaunty, cock-sure attitude of American servicemen fighting World War II in multiple theaters.  Miller and his band would entertain the troops with this and other hits in live shows until his death on December 15, 1944, when he would be lost while flying to France for a performance.  Think of the most popular entertainer you can, and they would pale in comparison to Glenn Miller in the late thirties and early forties.  Major Miller’s loss was felt.

It is important to remember what was occurring in April of 1942.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was only five months in the past, American troops at Bataan were about to surrender, the US Navy was conducting hit and run raids on Japanese strongholds, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo was in this month, and Americans were training up for the war in Europe while U-Boats lurked off of American shores.

“The Girl I Left Behind Me.”  If you listen, and know what you are listening for, at about the 1:40 mark you pick up on the overlay Miller’s crew added to “American Patrol” of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”  While versions of this tune were popular in Dublin and the British service long before, it became popular in the US Army during the Civil War and in the Cavalry as a marching tune.  So popular in fact, you’ve likely heard it in movies about the US Cavalry.

 

 

Freedom From Want

Today in History, March 6: 1942 –

“The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.”

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s January 6, 1941

The third in a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell, based on President FDR’s Four Freedoms State of the Union address in 1941, entitled “Freedom From Want”, and alternatively famously known as “The Thanksgiving Picture” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is published in the Saturday Evening Post.

The iconic painting included members of Rockwell’s family, which were photographed separately then included in the painting. The nation was at war, and the image was of those on the home front.

American’s could relate, but some Europeans were outraged as they were suffering daily bombings at the time.

Remember The Alamo! Remember The Maine! Remember Pearl Harbor! REMEMBER SANTA BARBARA!!

Today in History, February 23, 1942:

A little over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Imperial Navy submarine I-17 surfaces 1500 yards off the California coast, near Santa Barbara. Five crewmen scrambled out onto the deck and manned the boat’s deck gun.

Workers and residents on shore were confused and surprised when they figured out the booms and explosions they were hearing at an oil field in Ellwood were tied to the flashes they were seeing out at sea.

After 20 minutes the Captain ordered a hault to the assault, having missed the oil tanks and damaged a catwalk.

The relatively minor attack was the first time the Continental US had been bombarded since the War of 1812.

It dis have an effect on a populace already on edge. On the 25th, “enemy aircraft” would be sighted near LA, resulting in lengthy anti-aircraft fire which would be dubbed the “Battle of Los Angeles”.

It would also help speed the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, since many believed the assault had been assisted from shore by Japanese operatives.

It also would not be the last time the mainland was bombarded by the Japanese..more submarine attacks, an aircraft launched from a submarine and “balloon bombs” would be in the offing…all relatively unsuccessful.