Pop Culture Goes to War
Hollywood stars, radio personalities and the musicians enlisted in the war effort, as well, both on the frontlines and on the Home Front.
Most Americans first heard about Pearl Harbor through pupular culture when a news flash broke into a music program on the radio networks. For example, WCAE radio in Pittsburgh, PA, provided eye witness accounts of the destruction in Hiwaii. “We have witnessed this morning the attack of Pearl Harbor and a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army planes, undoubtedly Japanese,” the reporter announced. “The city of Honolulu has also been attacked and considerable damage done. This battle has been going on for nearly three hours. One of the bombers dropped within 50 feet of Taunti [phonetic spelling] Tower. It’s no joke. It’s a real war.” [Emphasis added.]
The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress – and the nation over radio. FDR had replaced the reporter’s disbelief with his own certainty and resolve. He asked Congress to make the war, in fact, “real” by officially declaring war. [The National Archives has a Web site about how FDR crafted the “Infamy” speech.]
By 1940, radio had become a mass medium. Almost 80 percent of the households in the U.S. owned a radio. Yet before the war, only seven percent of the airtime was devoted to news. By the end of the war, 25 percent of the airtime was news, and audiences had been transported to the battlefront in live and recorded reports. You can read
a transcript of Edward R. Murrow’s 1943 night bombing raid over Berlin here. The desperate need for news spurred additional radio set sales despite a cutback in production because of wartime rationing.
Motion pictures were also extremely popular. Ninety million Americans went to the movies every week during World War II. Many of the most popular movies and even the cartoons sported war themes, especially after the U.S. and its allies experienced some success in their campaigns.
One of the earliest WWII films from Hollywood celebrated one of the first American war victories, the “Doolittle Raid.” Pearl Harbor had been devastating to morale. Five months later, 16 B-25 bombers under the command of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo. They did more psychological damage than military destruction, but it was America’s first triumph. One of the pilots, Richard Joyce, was from Lincoln. In 1944, the raid was celebrated in a major motion picture “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” starring Spencer Tracy.
Soon, the content of the features caught up with the content of the newsreels that started each evening’s entertainment at the local movie palace. World War II pictures became a major genre of Hollywood film. During the 1940s, WWII movies tended to fall into three categories.
- Combat action films like “Flying Tigers,” “Guadalcanal Diary,” “Objective, Burma!” and “Wake Island.”
- Personal stories of individuals facing life and death situations in the face of the war. “Casablanca” is perhaps the best example of this genre with nightclub owner Rick struggling unsuccessfully to stay out of the war. Immediately after the war, “The Best Years of Our Lives” told the stories of several veterans struggling to pick up their civilians lives.
- Documentaries were also produced by some of Hollywood’s best talents. Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series is perhaps the best of this genre.
- Cartoon characters sold war bonds, flew planes, built bombs and even warned recruits about the dangers they were going to be facing.
Songs captured the emotions of the war. Some spoke of the longings that loved ones felt for each other when they were separated by events, and these are the songs that have endured. In several recordings of “I’ll Walk Alone,” singers like Dinah Shore (who sings this version), Martha Tilton and Mary Martin promised to walk alone “’til you’re walking beside me,” and asks her loved one to do the same. Other songs of longing included –
- “Shoo-Shoo Baby” where the Andrews Sisters told a young one don’t cry because you’re papa’s off to the seven seas. “Papa’s gotta be rough now / so that he can be sweet to you another day.”
- “I’m Making Believe” that you’re in my arms though I know you’re so far away.
- “I’ll Be Seeing You” talked about all the familiar places, including “the morning sun / And when the night is new / I’ll be looking at the moon / But I’ll be seeing you.”
- In 1943,”I’ll be Home by Christmas” struck a bittersweet note when it finished with “… if only in my dreams.” The song was at the top of charts for 11 weeks, and the original Bing Crosby version along with countless others have been popular sellers ever since.
Yet there were other songs that dealt head on with the sense of loss when a relationship came apart.
“Somebody Else is Taking My Place” rose to number 11 on the charts in 1942. In this version of the song, Peggy Lee joins the Benny Goodman band for the first time.
“Somebody else is taking my place
Somebody else now shares your embrace
While I am trying
To keep from crying
You go around with a smile on your face
Little you care for vows that you made
Little you care how much I have paid
My heart is aching
My heart is breaking
For somebody’s taking my place.”
In “My Heart Tells Me,” a jilted lover wonders whether or not to believe it when “you say our love means everything … My heart tells me I will cry again / Lips that kiss like yours could lie again… / Should I believe my heart or you?”
Jazz was the most popular form of music during the war, but there were audiences for country music, western swing, blues and R&B, rhythm and blues.
It was hard to keep bands together. By October, 1942, the jazz magazine Down Beat was running a regular feature called “Killed in Action” listing musicians who had been lost. At one point, there were over 60 bandleaders who enlisted. Others, like Benny Goodman, who couldn’t qualify because of health or age volunteered to go to the troops through the USO or who made special “V-Discs” that were distributed to troops.
Jazz also became a part of the cultural war that raged along side the fighting war. Jazz had its roots in African American music, and the racist Nazi regime had branded it “the art of the subhuman.” Yet, the music stayed alive in Nazi-occupied Europe. When Germans banned the playing of American music in Paris, local musicians simply changed the titles from English to French.
Even in Germany itself, “swing kids” met in secret, defying the Gestapo, and played records. They tuned in to Allied radio. They danced. In Ken Burns’ PBS series “Jazz,” Jutta Hipp, a German-born jazz pianist, explained how important the music was. She and her friends felt a tie to America even when Allied bombers were overhead.
“You won’t be able to understand this because you were born [in America], but to us, jazz is some kind of religion. We really had to fight for it, and I remember nights when we didn’t go down to the bomb shelter because we listened to [jazz] records. We just had the feeling that you were not our enemies, and even though the bomb crashed around us … we felt safe.”