Category Archives: WW2

How to keep the home front fires burning? Ask Etta Kett

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This 1943 “Etta Kett” cartoon shows that girl power proved to have real muscle in the Home Front during WWII — in more ways than one.

“Etta Kett” started out as a one-panel comic strip by Paul Robinson launched in 1925. In 1930 King Features Syndicate picked it up and it developed into a full Sunday strip and ran for some five decades. Etta Kett was a teenager before Americans knew what to call them, a wholesome gal whose fun-loving entourage of teens still managed to drive the parents of all suburbia nuts.

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Filed under Cartoon, The Forties, WW2

I Love You Darling: Love Letters From WWII

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Foreground, Arline Thurlow and Morris Densmore before they married. Background: The hope chest filled with letters. Pictures used by permission of the author.

By Martha Densmore

In June 2012, my mom sold her house. She asked if I wanted anything. We were standing at the foot of her bed. The cedar hope chest was open.

“I’d like the letters.”

“Take them!”

Over three hundred letters written from my father to my mother, dated from April 9, 1942 to May 12, 1946, were bundled and tied with thin satin ribbon. My mom’s private personal treasure had been sequestered in the chest for more than 60 years.

I took them home from L.A. to Denver in a hatbox.

Several weeks passed before I felt ready to read one. I picked it at random. First words shot me back in time. The scene came to life. Dad was on his ship in the SW Pacific. “These are my three requests about the ring,” he wrote. What the hell? The ring? No way! He’s talking about “the ring” in a letter? I felt like a ghost meeting my father as a young man for the first time.

My parents, Morris Densmore and Arline Thurlow, were all-American high school sweethearts living in Portland, Maine during the Second World War. Both were overcoming turbulent childhoods in the Great Depression and refashioning their lives. Both were ambitious and determined to succeed.

The first letter is a postcard from a weekend jaunt “Mose” took with guy friends to visit college: “We had swell luck on the way up. I guess we thumbed about a dozen cars.”  This begins an exhaustive history spanning his first year at Bowdoin College, the take-over of the college by the military, fraternity life, enlistment in the Navy, Midshipman’s School at Bates, Naval Academy at Annapolis, deployment to the SW Pacific and homecoming. Morris married Arline shortly after he returned home from the war in 1946.

Writing in great detail–Dad was a habitual list-maker—his letters disclose college and naval classes, his future plans, jobs, duties, entertainment, basically a universe of experience. During deployment in the Pacific he relates his hopes, longings and even despair.

In a letter to Arline dated Nov 19, 1944, Dad pretty well sums up the mood of every soldier writing home to his true love as he departs for battle:

Tonight I feel like writing you and perhaps, you might say, opening my heart to you. Tomorrow I am being detached from the Twelfth Naval District, which means (I am to) pack for embarkation. Sometimes, darling,  I may tend to be dramatic or melodramatic; perhaps it is just a weak or sentimental mood;  but I am sure all men feel somewhat as I do tonight.

… As fate would have it we were together in reality but nine months. Since that time we have been apart. We have been apart darling in time and space but as these two elements have increased I know my thoughts of and for you have also increased to the point where I have but one great immediate goal in life and you know what that is Arline. In a way darling I am not too sorry that I’m going over now because the sooner I go over the sooner I will be back.

… By the time you get this letter I will probably be on my way so this is probably my best chance to give you some information which you have asked about in your letters. I am going to the Dutch New Guinea area. I might possibly end up in the Admiralty islands but this also is in that general area. … Here I will be joining some flotilla of the 7th Amphibian Forces.

… As I understand it, there is a definite training routine before every operation which means darling that I won’t be dodging bullets all of the time. I have been issued a lot of tropical clothes and equipment. Remember Arline that you are always to use the same address unless I tell you specifically otherwise and never let anybody, either in your letters to me or in any other way, have any indication that you know where I am.

–Reprinted by permission of Martha Densmore; not for republication

Dad passed away in 1999. Our father-daughter relationship was for decades, arms-length, cerebral, emotionally vacuous. Don’t get me wrong. Morris was loving, even-tempered and honorable. It’s just that he demonstrated his love by deeds. “I love you” is something he never spoke or wrote to me. The closest, from his deathbed, was a nod, a vague answer about love. Both mom and dad were the “silent generation”: They rarely shared about the war. They had sacrificed all.

All that’s in the letters lives on. They are of soul and heart. Letters such as these are a lifeline of love, able to cross land and sea, years—even hearts.

I am watching the movies mentioned in the letters. I turn on Turner Classic Movies and watch them as if I were sitting next to my father.

His  “I Love you Darling” in hundreds of letters is a palpable connection. I feel closer to Morris than ever. This may seem odd, but they are written to me.

Letters that are my favorite and key historical documents will be the foundation of a book I plan to publish in Winter 2014. This wonderful romance is my personal story of healing through reconstructing the lives of my parents. I hope this American story will be an inspiration to others.

Guest blogger Martha Densmore  lives in Santa Barbara, California, and is an acupuncturist, nurse and writer. Her Love Letters of WWII Facebook page is loaded with all sorts of images from the age. Be sure to check it out.

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Letter from Morris Densmore dated Nov. 19, 1944. Use of a scan of the letter by permission of the author.

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Officer of Command Morris Densmore, U.S. Navy. The flag from his ship USS LCT-1088 is in the family’s possession. Photo permission of the author.

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The author with her father Morris. Photo by permission of the author.

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Filed under The Forties, WW2

Big Curves to See Me Home (B17 Nose Art)

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By David Cohea

Climbing above 10 thousand feet, you reach for an oxygen mask, knowing that the plane will climb a lot higher en route to its daily target. Outside, it’s 60 degrees below zero. You wear what protection you can against the cold – an electrically heated suit, heavy gloves.

You also wear a 30-pound flak suit and steel helmet—protection against antiaircraft fire that’s sure as rain to come.

No way you can work and wear a parachute, so you wear the parachute harness and hope when its necessary you can get to your chute in time.

Outside the window, you see dozens of B-17 bombers all around you. It’s an eight-hour round trip fraught with peril. Not all of you will return. And your chances of completing all 25 missions of your tour of duty are only about one in four.

It’s 1944, and you know you’re a long, long way from home.

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Living legends

The B17 was a strategic bomber flown by the US Air Force during much of the Second World War against German targets, a 4-engined behemoth capable of flying long distances and somehow keeping aloft despite taking heavy damage from German air and ground defenses.

Its 9-man crew consisted of a pilot, air commander, bombardier, 2 navigators, 4 gunners manning the top turret, tail, waist and ball turret guns, and a radio operator. They flew wearing oxygen masks and were bundled up against the cold of flying at up to 29 thousand feet.

Flying to their targets in the industrial heartland of Germany (seeking to derail the military output of the Reich), B17s flew in formations of 18 planes scattered at three altitudes, linking with two other 18-plane formations to form a wedge of destruction a mile and a half wide.  (Later the formation was changed to a more defensible formation of three groups of 12) Each plane carried a payload of about 2 tons of bombs; at the peak of the air war in November 1944, some 35 thousand tons of bombs would be dropped.

German defenses were strong. Since they were fighting over their homeland, the FW-190 and ME-109 fighter pilots could run multiple missions in a day. A pilot could be shot down in one plane and return in another in hours. Flak guns were numerous and powerful and a single shell hitting the right place could send a bomber plummeting to its destruction.

To defend themselves, the total combat box of the B-17 formation would carry some 640 50-caliber guns each capable of firing 14 rounds a second to a distance of 600 yards. Still, the cost was heavy. On October 17-18, 1944 some 300 attacking Fortresses were met by an equal number of German fighter planes of the Luftwaffe and some 90 Fortresses were shot down; 800 crew members died.

Later in the war, American P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes that could fly the distance along with the Fortresses greatly reduced the casualty rate, but in flying in a B17 was dicey business, dicey indeed.

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American military hardware was good as far as it went, but how to ensure a safe return? B17 crew members took extra measure to woo Fate as best they could, painting the noses of the aircraft with animals, cartoon characters, and, most usually, with women, sometimes clothed, sometimes not so clothed, usually young and marriageable, often named after wives and girlfriends back home.

Hoping it would boost aircrew morale, Air Force commanders tolerated the practice. The U.S. Navy, by contrast, prohibited nose art in the Pacific Theater; planes were simply painted with their numbers.

Much like ships of old, B17 bombers were given names and figureheads to personalize them and imbue them with that extra bit of added mojo. Maybe a pretty lady painted on the fuselage did no more than provide a visual reminder to crews than giving the crews a reason to fight their way through hell and back.

Maybe they personified those haunting voice on Armed Forces Radio sounding like a loved one back home, something angelic and pure and untouched by war. And maybe they were indeed angels, seeing to it that they made it back to base and provided blessing for the next day’s sortie and the next … Until that dreamed-of day came when an airman could fly at last to the real little lady back home.

At the height of the war, nose-artists were in very high demand. Professional civilian artists as well as talented servicemen would do the work. Tony Starcer was the resident artist for the 91st Bomb Group and painted some 217 bomber noses. Pin-up by illustrator Alberto Vargas published in Esquire magazine were a favorite of B17 nose painters.

The art was daring to a point — there was always the threat of censorship from Air Force brass — but the accent of curves may have been part of the unconscious association with the Beloved and the fragile hulk of the B17 fuselage, something all too penetrable without the valiant efforts of the crew.

Too often the crews would go down with their ladies. And yet, despite odds hugely to the contrary, some B17s and their crews would fly out again and again and again, dropping their payloads, surviving the withering fire of German defenses and make it back to the home field until it was time to go all the way home.

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One of these was the Memphis Belle, A B17-F of the 324 Bomb Squadron that flew out of Bassingbourne, England. The ship was supposed to be named after pilot Robert Morgan’s sweetheart back in Memphis, nicknamed Little One. But one night he and his copilot Jim Verinis saw the movie Lady For a Night in which the lead character owned a riverboat named the Memphis Belle, and that became the B17’s handle.

Morgan then wrote artist Charles Petty care of Esquire magazine for a pinup to paint on the fuselage, and Petty supplied one from the magazine’s April 1941 issue. Tony Starcer painted the image on both sides of Memphis Belle’s fuselage, with Belle in a blue suit on the port side and a red suit on the starboard.

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Memphis Belle was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions with her crew intact. The aircraft was flown back to the United States in 1943 to fly on a 31-city war bond tour. After the war, the Memphis Belle was saved from reclamation mostly by the efforts of Memphis mayor Walter Chandler, and the city bought the plane for $350. She sat out-of-doors deteriorating into the 1980s, with every removable piece of equipment pried loose by scavengers.

In 2005, the National Museum of the United States Air Force acquired the Memphis Belle and is in the process of a lengthy restoration. Nearly 70 years after she steered her crew through every flak and bullet thrown at them by the War, the Belle is still around, and her figurehead is still turned away from us, sighting a way home.

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Filed under Pin-Ups, The Forties, WW2