Sat, Jun

Remembered Through Time: Reflections on Wartime Sacrifices and Legacy


GELFAND’S WORLD - Perhaps Memorial Day tributes should be left to those who fought, but then there are novels and movies and commentaries to be noticed and, at the proper time, remembered. Over the past twenty years or so of writing this column, I've noticed a few pieces that are important enough to bear comment. I'd like to mention a couple, one dealing with perhaps the greatest short piece of wartime writing, along with a documentary film and a more personal observation. One relates to the Pacific war, and two relate to the two great European wars of the twentieth century. They are taken in not quite temporal order. 

Lessons from Gloria, a message that was wrong at the time but has grown in meaning. 

In 2008, I attended a silent film festival in an otherwise obscure corner of northeastern Italy. Let me insert a two-sentence introduction. Those who are interested in the silent film era (roughly speaking, from 1895 to 1928) find a vast collection of films both good and bad, masterpieces among them. But when you join in the silent film experience, you are also using a sort of time machine that takes you into an era of bootleg whiskey, direct memories of the Civil War, and most of all, that conflict we now refer to as World War I. It was the conflict that destroyed the old order, redrew the map of Europe and the Middle East, and inspired works such as All Quiet on the Western Front. 

But for me, there was a documentary film, barely an hour long, which showed an afterwards moment in a little remembered corner of WWI, or as it was referred to at the time, as The Great War. I spoke of that film in a 2008 column which was featured in CityWatch and reprinted in the online film discussion Nitrateville. I offer that column about the reburial of one unknown soldier in a story which the editor titled "Lessons from Gloria." 

You can read it here

That film was both historical documentary and fascist propaganda when it came out in the early 1920s. It is now one of the better lessons on the true effects of war. 

A Plane Called Bockscar 

I happened to be in Dayton, Ohio one spring day in the mid-1980s. In fact, I was there for a rugby tournament (my X-rays attest to that era of my life), and the rugby fields had been laid out on the lawns that were part of the US Air Force Museum on the grounds of the Wright Patterson AFB. At the time, I didn't know anything about the exhibits, but I did notice off in the distance what looked to be a B-52 parked outside. I wandered in that direction and came across the Museum. 

It should be mentioned that the Wright Patterson AFB happens to be right next to an old pasture which has this historical importance: The Wright brothers basically invented flying using that location during the couple or three years following the Kitty Hawk flight. It makes sense that the museum became a repository for reconstructions of the original Wright aircraft along with the aircraft from multiple nations developed for WWI and future wars. There is a particularly thorough collection of hardware from WWII. 

I wandered through the giant building that housed dozens and dozens of aircraft until I came to an area that I vaguely remember as being in the far end of the building. Not many people were around, and it was an obscure sort of location. 

There was an airplane that would not be considered huge by modern standards, and it wasn't set off in any particularly dramatic way. But there was a name and some information. 

Here are a few of my notes from a later trip. This B-29 was captained by Frederick C Bock, and the plane was wryly named "Bockscar." Get it? Bock flew his own Box Car. But this plane had historical significance that went back to a raid carried out on August 9, 1945 under the command of a substitute pilot. 

And here is what I remember so clearly. There was a small sign in front of the plane, and it said something like this: "This plane dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, thereby ending World War II." 

My mind shifts to pictures of Buckingham Palace and the massive war monuments in Paris and London and Washington, but here in front of me (and no other viewers in that particular moment) was the real thing, the actual aircraft which had put the final touches on a war which killed fifty million people, a war which once again redrew the boundaries in Europe and Asia, and stimulated invention to a previously unheard of level, bringing us penicillin in bulk, radar, mass production of airplanes and trucks and tanks, and so much more. 

It was strange in a way. There was no triumphal arch or blaring music. Just one airplane among many others, painted in military drab and otherwise unadorned. I wonder if you would have found it if you had gone looking for it. Yet there it was, the airplane that controlled Stalin to a certain extent, redefined world dominance to the United States, and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who would otherwise have invaded Japan. 

I also wonder if the American use of atomic weapons was being intentionally downplayed at the time. You certainly did not see signs on the local highways inviting you to visit the final weapon in the world's hugest tragedy. It was almost as though the plane Bockscar had to be shown, but nobody really wanted to call attention to it. 

In the modern day, things have been rearranged. The Museum has moved the plane to a more central location and surrounded it with equipment meant to signify a ramp where a 10,000 pound early-era atomic weapon is on a cart, about to be loaded into the bomb bay. 

It's still a quiet corner of middle America, but lots more people take notice of perhaps the most instrumental airplane in the 4-day history of atomic warfare. 

Ernie Pyle and the greatest column ever written. 

I don't know if it was the greatest column ever written, but it is in the running. 

The context was the American campaign up the boot of Italy in WWII. Pyle himself was ill and exhausted, and was visited in his tent by another writer. Pyle showed him a draft that he didn't think much of. It was about an otherwise unknown American soldier who was killed in action. About a month later, after the relatives of the dead man had been notified, The Death of Captain Waskow was printed on the front page of Pyle's newspaper. You can see why it became a classic. 

You can read it here

Some non-Memorial thoughts on current history 

The first president or former president to be tried on criminal charges will be facing his jury within hours. Perhaps the judge will send this case to the jury on Wednesday morning. After that, it is up to the 12 good people to decide on the facts as they apply to the law. It is up to the judge to describe and explain the law to that jury. 

There has been a lot of speculation as to how the jury will react. If this were a case involving someone who is not named Donald Trump, the predictable outcome would be a rapid finding of guilty on all counts -- perhaps within hours or maybe after one additional day. Less likely but possible would be a three or four day discussion among the jurors leading to the same verdict. 

I notice that it has become fashionable for otherwise rational people to predict that one juror will hang the jury due to his previously hidden membership in the Trump cult otherwise known as MAGA. Perhaps so, but I'm guessing differently. 

And even is this were to happen, the result that 10 or 11 jurors voted Guilty would come out quickly. We'll see. 

But whatever happens, this has been and will be a monumental moment in the history of the United States. What is shameful is the moral and intellectual corruption of the United States Supreme Court and the federal judge in Miami who have twisted the legal system to delay Trump's other trials -- trials on far more serious charges, charges that border on treason. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)