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.

Garnerin – First to Parachute

Today in History, October 22, 1797:

– Can you imagine being the very first person to decide dropping from a high altitude supported by a canopy of silk was a good idea? On this date in 1797 André-Jacques Garnerin was that person as he ascended to a height of 3200 feet with a hydrogen balloon then cut himself loose to drift over Paris with a parachute he designed.

Quentin Roosevelt

Today in History, July 14, 1919:

US Airman Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, dies when he is shot down over France in WWI.

He and his brothers, who all served in WWI were very competitive in the voracity of their service, trying to live up to their father’s exploits…a father who also wanted to serve but was refused due to President Wilson’s fear that TR’s service might lead to a run for President in 1920. TR wouldn’t live that long…and he spent his last years heartbroken over the loss of his youngest son.

TR Jr. would die of a heart attack just weeks after leading his division in the Normandy invasion of 1944…again living up to his father’s legacy. A family of immense wealth; several generations of which dedicated their lives to service to their country.

The USS Kearsarge Ends CSS Alabama’s Run

Today in History, June 19, 1864:

The Battle off Cherbourg. In 1861 the screw sloop CSS Alabama was launched in England, which was just the beginning of the intrigue involving the Confederate cruiser that wreaked havoc on Union shipping until her demise on this date in 1864.

The British gov’t had ordered no ships be built or sold to the rebels, but the company that built the Alabama did so clandestinely. During the intervening years the Alabama, which had both steam engines and sails, circled the globe sinking Union merchant shipping (60 at least) and a Union warship.

She had put in at Cherbourg, France for much needed repairs, but was rebuffed. Before she could leave, the Union screw sloop USS Kearsarge arrived outside the harbor.

Capt. Charles Pickering and many other Union Captains had been searching for the infamous Alabama and Capt. Raphael Semmes for years. Semmes set out to engage the Kearsarge, firing the first shot. The two ships parried, but the Kearsarge had some advantages; powerful new “Dahlgren” guns and chains draped over her sides for protection. Within an hour the Kearsarge’s crew sent the Alabama to the bottom. Semmes escaped on a passing British ship to England with 41 of his crew.

Nazi Atrocities

Today in History, June 10, 1944:

Oradour-sur-Glane, France. Elements of the Nazi SS, acting on belief that one of their officers had been captured by members of the French Resistance, rounded up every citizen of the town and 6 hapless passersby. They locked all of the women and children in a church, then took all of the men to barns, where machine gun nests were already set up. The men were intentionally shot in the legs so that they would die more slowly…once they were all unable to move, the Nazis poured gasoline over them and set the barns afire.

They then returned to the church, where they set off an incendiary device inside. As the church burned, women and children tried to climb out of windows…where they were machine-gunned. 642 innocent civilians were slaughtered.

1944 – Distomo, Greece. In retaliation for a partisan attack, German SS troops go house to house in the village (whose residents had nothing to do with the attack), killing every man woman and child, totaling 218 dead in the end. They disemboweled one infant in front of his family and committed numerous other atrocities before burning the village.

D-Day, the 6th of June

Today in History, June 6, 1944:

The skies overhead filled with aircraft…thousands of bombers, transports, fighters. The British populace watched the boys board transport ships bound for France…and wept. Their towns, so long filled with those damned Americans were now quiet and empty. They wouldn’t be coming back. Many would fill cemeteries across Europe; others would be headed home for the US after fighting their way to Germany.

In America, as the news was broadcast that the invasion had begun at long last, businesses, theaters, and other workplaces emptied and closed…and the churches filled to capacity.

Americans prayed for their sons, husbands and fathers. I’m sure they prayed not to see the Western Union courier on their street in the coming days.

The Allies had been planning, working for and arguing over this day since America had entered the war. Americans had wanted to make the assault on Europe as early as 1942. Stalin in Russia had been pushing for another front to be opened to relieve pressure on his country which had suffered incredible losses.

The British General Staff and Churchill had won the argument, which saw to fighting in Africa, Sicily and Italy first.

By 1944, as America provided more and more supplies…and troops…to the war, the invasion of France was planned.

The largest, most complex invasion in history began on June 6, 1944 with Americans, British, Canadians and troops from the occupied nations of Europe.

The world was saved by boys who should have lived long, happy lives.

We owe a debt we cannot possibly repay.

On that day, my father would be recognizing his 17th birthday. I don’t know when he shipped out, but that is the year he began his service in the Pacific.

Defeat? Or Victory at Dunkirk

Today in History, May 26: 1940 – Operation Dynamo, or the Evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France at Dunkirk, begins. The BEF had been sent to France after years of appeasement, when Hitler had invaded Poland in September of 1939. On May 10th Germany invaded France, which, although considered the largest army in Europe, promptly folded like an old lawn chair. The British, French and Belgian troops retreated to Dunkirk, where they faced certain defeat. The idea now was the evacuate across the English Channel, but the first day’s effort on saw the evacuation of 9,000 or so men. A call for assistance went out, and every Royal Navy vessel that could sail, every civilian yacht, fishing vessel and others that could sail for Dunkirk, did so. In the end, 9 days later, more than 338,000 soldiers had been rescued; the best and brightest of the British armed forces that would be needed in the years to come.