5 Classic, But Largely Forgotten Songs of WWII

Music played a very important part in maintaining morale not only on the home front, but also at the front. In The Boys We Knew, Johnny writes a letter to Command Performance, a radio program created by the military for GIs based on their own requests. American troops all over the world listened to Ruth Hay and her Reveille with Beverly radio program, and  Glenn Miller joined the Army for the express purpose of forming a military band that would play “modern music” for the young men and women in the armed forces. Music was a way of connecting one front to the other.

Ironically, some songs that we now associate with World War II actually hit the charts before the war. “In the Mood” topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1940, while “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” debuted early in 1941. This got me to thinking about the many songs that came out during the war that were actually about the war and its effect on the home front. Perhaps because they were so in tune with the time, these songs are largely forgotten now, unless, of course, you listen to Sirius XM radio’s 40s Junction on channel 6073. To understand any time period, however, you have to see it from a contemporary perspective and not from a perspective that continues to develop 75 years later.

Therefore, I give you five songs that truly speak to the experience of the time. I have excluded songs such as “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Sentimental Journey” because although they had a deep contextual meaning for those who experienced the war, their lyrics speak to other contexts as well. The songs on the following list, however, are firmly rooted in the war experience and I invite you to click on the links and listen:

  1. Many songs were written in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor including “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” The 1942 song was based on an actual event aboard the S. S. New Orleans during the attack. With inoperative hoists to take ammunition to the decks, the crew formed a “bucket brigade.” Chaplain Howell M. Forgy uttered the remark to encourage the men, a remark that he may have heard in the 1939 movie Guns Along the Mohawk.
  2. “This Is the Army Mr. Jones” humorously addresses the shock experienced by millions of men who suddenly found themselves in the service. Written by none other than Irving Berlin in 1942, the song was featured in a Broadway review entitled, This Is the Army, which was also written by Berlin with the express approval of General George C. Marshall, as a way to raise money for the Army. Wildly popular, it was turned into a movie of the same name in 1943. (Shenandoah Valley Dancers might recognize this song as part of Jump Alley’s repertoire.)
  3. “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” was introduced in the 1943 movie musical/fundraiser Thank Your Lucky Stars and was sung by Bette Davis. The song laments the fact that the only men seemingly left at home represent slim pickings: Tomorrow I’ll go hiking with that Eagle Scout unless I get a call from grandpa for a snappy game of chess.
  4. There was actually a song entitled “Rosie the Riveter” that appeared early in 1943. In fact, the term appeared in the song before it appeared in any artwork. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover appeared on May 29, 1943. The song featured here is the original by the Four Vagabonds.
  5. My personal favorite on this list is an Ella Mae Morse song entitled, “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.” The song appeared in the 1944 film, Broadway Rhythm and is sung by a night shift factory worker who is headed to bed when the rest of the world is rising:

Been knocking out a fast tank, all day
Working on a bomber okay
Boy you blast my wig with those clinks
And I got to catch my forty winks.

To truly understand what everyday life was like from Pearl Harbor through V-J Day it is important to listen to the everyday songs and watch the everyday movies that folks were consuming, and not just the ones that we remember as being representative of the time. (Which isn’t always accurate. See my post from May 11, 2018.)

Post script: History on the Net’s WWII In American Music page is an excellent and thorough source for songs that were popular from 1939-1945 and I would encourage you to explore the site.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Boys We Knew

The Boys We Knew, the sequel to The Secret of Their Midnight Tears, is now available in both paperback and e-book form. You can download a copy to your Kindle, order from Amazon, or see me, as the first batch of copies just arrived at my house. (And I know that some of you have to have that real copy in your hands!)

The Boys We Knew begins on December 31, 1942, just a few weeks after The Secret of Their Midnight Tears ends, or perhaps I should say, “pauses.” The latest novel pauses shortly after D-Day. And I say “pauses” again because a third and final volume is planned.

Elizabeth Bittner is the town’s telegrapher, an important job, which has also made her the bearer of terrible news to some of the town’s families. Her closest friend, Veronica Marsh is helping her father manage a group of young Victory Farm Volunteers. The two girls contribute to the war effort by organizing a War Bond drive, donating to the scrap drives, and writing letters to Veronica’s brother, Buck, and their friend, Johnny, who are in the Pacific. Ever concerned for the welfare of “their boys,” Elizabeth and Veronica are anxious for their return, but as the girls become conscious of how the war is changing them, they begin to wonder: Will the boys who come home to us—if they do come home—be the boys we knew?

Two new characters are doing their part to win the war. Jimmy Hardy, who was dating Elizabeth finds himself as part of the invasion force storming Utah Beach on D-Day. High school freshman Hannah Wightman is part of the Victory Farm Volunteers, spending her summer tending tomato plants with several classmates on the Marsh farm.

At one point, several of the characters attend a war bond rally at the local textile factory. This scene is based on an article that appeared in the July, 1943 Butler Brothers company newspaper of which my mother was a contributing editor for the Baltimore plant. The three servicemen who are introduced to the crowd in Marsh Point are real, as is their story. Here is an excerpt from this particular chapter titled, “July 21, 1943.”

Mr. Harbaugh introduced Petty Officer Shelby Pits of the Naval Industrial Relations Department, who in turn introduced the three men who had been sitting quietly on the flatbed truck that had been pressed into service as an outdoor stage. Each was in the dress uniform of his service branch.

The first was Private Robert Chapin a Marine who was serving as a gunner on the U.S.S. Yorktown when it was sunk. He was also in the first wave at Guadalcanal and wore on his chest a Purple Heart.

The second was Seaman Basil Izzi whose ship was torpedoed in November and who survived 83 days aboard a life raft on raw fish and birds.

The third was a merchant seaman, John McCarthy whose vessel carrying vital supplies to England was also torpedoed at night in the North Atlantic. The sixteen days he spent in a life raft resulted in four months in a naval hospital for treatment of frozen feet, hands, arms and legs.

These three, along with Petty Officer Pits, were just beginning a tour of factories in the Mid-Atlantic. Already they had appeared at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore, Fairchild Aircraft in Hagerstown, and at the B & O Roundhouse in Martinsburg. From Marsh point they would visit plants in Lynchburg, Bedford, Roanoke, Richmond, Petersburg, and the Portsmouth Naval Yards. No longer fit for active duty, they were still useful on the home front urging the folks to work hard and buy war bonds.

Each spoke briefly, but sincerely about the need for LeBeau Brothers employees to take pride in their work and to produce the best clothing possible. Private Chapin in particular urged them to never miss a day and to buy bonds. Seeing so many school-aged children in the audience, he added, “And you kids, skip that Saturday morning Western at the movie house and buy stamps instead.” Pausing, he added, “I apologize if the owner of the local theater is present,” a remark which was followed by great laughter.

Finally, Petty Officer Pits stood up once more and invited Claire Morrison to the stage. She was helped up onto the truck and remained by his side as he spoke once more to the crowd.

“You all know of Mrs. Morrison’s sacrifice and, therefore; I need not detail it here. While she may have lost her son, she has not lost her resolve to do all that she can to win this war. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you the Chairwoman of Marsh Point’s Red Cross Bandage Committee.”

Great applause broke out as Mrs. Morrison informed everyone that the committee would meet every Thursday at Zion Methodist Church at 7:00 to roll bandages for the troops and that LeBeau was donating all the material.

Clearly the end of the program had been reached, but no one had had presence of mind to plan any kind of closing or benediction. Avery Harbaugh was about to ask Reverend Frye to come up and pronounce one, when Seaman Izzi stepped forward and began to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Everyone joined in, the singing growing ever louder.

“Thank you,” said Seaman Izzi as the home of the brave brought the National Anthem to its conclusion. He nervously circled his white hat in his hands. “We used to sing a lot on board the raft.”

Hannah, who was in a group that included her mom, the Marshes and the Bittners had all heard the words of the “Star-Spangled Banner” drift across the Rowatoba River, languid in the mid-summer sun, but in her mind’s eye she saw Seaman Izzi in a raft drifting in an empty ocean, fighting to maintain hope.

“Heroes don’t look like you think they’ll look,” she said to no one in particular.

I hope you enjoy The Boys We Knew. Reviews on Amazon are important for broader marketing and I would be most appreciative if you would write one, however brief.

Posted in World War II, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Dad’s Sentimental Journey

A great deal of the inspiration for my just-released World War II novel, The Boys We Knew came from my parents’ experience. The scene in which three servicemen visit the LeBeau Brothers factory, for example, was taken from the Butler Brothers factory newspaper on which my mom was an editor. Petty Officer Shelby Pits, Private Robert Chapin, Seaman Basil Izzi, and John McCarthy were portrayed in the novel just as described by Butler Brothers’ newspaper. Seaman Izzi’s account of his ordeal at sea is available on-line.

I have made another connection with my parents’ experience to the times, one that I think will have to go into the third and final volume of what started with The Secret of Their Midnight Tears. My dad, being a highly structured person, kept a log of his train trip from Seattle, Washington where he disembarked from his destroyer, the USS Gleaves, to Bainbridge, Maryland and the USN Personnel Separation Center, just north of his home in Baltimore, where he was discharged on December 20, 1945. I should say, “their home,” because he and my mom had married on Thanksgiving Day, 1943. Leaving Seattle at 4:30 a.m. on December 13th, the train wound its way through Washington, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—in fact, the final stop was Harrisburg, where his granddaughter now works for ABC 27—before arriving in Bainbridge perhaps around 3:00 p.m. on the 18th. I say “around” because the note for Harrisburg reads “1400/18” and there is no entry for his arrival at Bainbridge. I can only imagine that in his excitement he forgot to record it.

Just last week I connected this post card that I knew was among my parents’ keepsakes to a song that I’ve heard at least 200 times before. I was listening to the 40s Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio when “Sentimental Journey” began to play. This time, however, when Doris Day sang, “counting every mile of railroad track that takes me back,” I got a chill as Dad’s postcard came to mind. My father had almost certainly heard the song as it hit the charts at the end of March and stayed there for 23 weeks. It was an anthem for the boys and girls returning home and you cannot watch Doris Day talk about that without crying. I can’t, anyway. Had Dad heard that song and decided he would count “every mile” or at least every stop? Whether my dad was inspired by the song or the songwriters were inspired by guys like my dad doesn’t really matter. They were all connected by the joy of victory and homecoming, and now, thanks to the post card he kept, his son and granddaughters and now great-granddaughter are a little more strongly connected to him.

[Click on the link for an excellent video of “Sentimental Journey.”]

Posted in Life is Interesting, World War II, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ward’s Problem

Even after all these years, the television show, Leave it to Beaver can still make me laugh out loud and make me beyond misty as it portrays the struggles of children trying to make sense of the world, and the struggles of parents trying to make sense of their children.

Take the episode, “Ward’s Problem” from Season 2, for example. Ward has promised Wally that he will take him fishing on Saturday. Ward has had to cancel on Wally for three Saturdays in a row and promises Wally that this time trip is on. Beaver, however, comes home with the news that there is a Father-Child picnic at the school on Saturday and creates “Ward’s problem.” June volunteers to go, but Beaver tells her, “No women are allowed, unless they’re a father.”

The boys are eating supper one night while their parents are out and it is then they realize that their father has promised both of them something he can’t deliver to one of them. Before they make this discovery, Wally, the ever-vigilant older brother tells Beaver, “Mom and Dad wouldn’t like you eatin’ with your face in your plate.”

“But they’re not here,” replies Beaver.

“Well, I’m here.”

“I’m not going to waste manners on you.”

Ward finally decides that the right thing to do is to go to Beaver’s picnic. He tells Wally that since Wally wants to be treated like a man now that he is in high school, it is he who will have to bear the disappointment.

“You know, Dad,” says Wally, “It always doesn’t work out so well, being treated like a man.”

If wiser words were ever uttered on a television show, I haven’t heard them.

Naturally, Ward and Beaver take first place in the three-legged race and Beaver excitedly shows his mom the trophy. “It’s solid gold plastic!”

At the end of the show, June gently chastises Ward for not telling Wally sooner that the fishing trip was delayed once more, to which Ward responds, “When a father has two sons and they’re both looking forward to having a good time with him, you hang on to the feeling as much as you can.”

Happy Father’s Day.

Image result for photos of leave it to beaver characters

Posted in Life is Interesting | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Capital Experience

I will never forget watching the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup last night, mainly because we watched most of the game on a little laptop screen in a little ballpark in Winchester, Virginia. Somehow, that seems quite appropriate.

Martha and I had been invited to attend Men of Opequon Night at Bridgeforth Field to watch the Winchester Royals take on the Harrisonburg Turks in Valley Baseball League action. The “MoO” group, as they call themselves, an Opequon Presbyterian Church organization, had asked me to speak about Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience back in May, and we enjoyed talking with one another so much that they graciously extended us an invitation to their outing last night. Of course, as it turned out, the Capitals were playing the potential clinching game for the Stanley Cup. We set the DVR and hoped to get home at least in time for the 3rd period.

The baseball game was a sloppy affair however, that included multiple hit batsmen, walks, wild pitches—in fact Winchester scored two runs in an inning in which they never recorded a hit. As the game dragged on into the cooling Virginia night, the crowd diminished. To our left, however, were two Shenandoah University volleyball players, one a junior the other a senior, and both in their Capitals jerseys. Martha had cheered them upon their entrance to the stands with a “Go Caps!” The public address announcer was keeping us informed of the hockey score and there wasn’t much concern among the baseball fans when the 1st period ended in a 0-0 score. As the teams furiously traded goals in the 2nd period, however, our attention turned more and more to the hockey game and at that point we noticed that the two volleyball players had a laptop computer on which they were streaming the Stanley Cup. Realizing our interest, the girls angled the laptop so that we could see and began announcing the goals. When Washington went up 2-1 I said, “You know if the Caps keep winning we won’t be able to leave. We’ll have to stay in the stands lest we mess with the Cosmic mojo.”

“We’ll be the only ones here in the dark, if we have to,” replied the young woman in the Ovechkin jersey.

We were bonded from that point on.

In the 7th inning—or maybe the 8th—Harrisonburg put seven runs on the board to go up 16-4. We were now the only four people left in our section of bleachers.

“They have to win tonight. I can’t take any more anxiety,” said the junior whose boyfriend was coaching first base for Winchester. We agreed, but it didn’t look good until Devante Smith-Pelly tied the game 3-3 about half-way through the 3rd period. At this point, Martha was walking around, too nervous to watch on the laptop, and I was sitting in the aisle next to the girls.

Winchester added a meaningless run in the bottom of the 9th to make the final score 16-5 and ending the three-hour forty-five minute affair. With the hockey game tied, we were released from our vow of having to stay in the bleachers in order to maintain the Balance of the Hockey Universe. We weren’t yet out of the parking lot when we turned on the radio and heard Lars Eller put the Caps ahead 4-3 with about 7:30 to go.

We hurried home and into the house where we watched the final 28 seconds and the finest moment in Washington Capitals history. We didn’t watch together, of course. Martha raced upstairs to watch on the bedroom television because that’s where she had watched the entire playoffs. Had the Golden Knights scored while she was watching downstairs, she never would have forgiven herself for causing that.

I felt joy as the Caps celebrated, but I also felt the joy of our two young friends bouncing around like radio waves emanating from somewhere in Winchester. We never got as far as introducing ourselves; names weren’t necessary anyway as we knew all we needed to know about one another as the innings drifted by. And so, I’ll never remember the Caps first Stanley Cup without thinking of our two friends and how we huddled around this little screen in an empty section of bleachers on what turned out to be a glorious night indeed.

Posted in Life is Interesting | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Inspiration for Romeo and Juliet. Which is not the Greatest Love Story Ever.

Martha and I recently attended the wedding of very good friends and upon the conclusion of the reception we were given a blue book with a carved cover by the bride who asked us to record some wise words about love or marriage or both. Perhaps, it was the cover which has a decidedly Renaissance look to it, but I immediately thought of Romeo and Juliet and how many regard this play as the greatest love story ever told. Having taught it some 25 times to less-than-intrigued freshmen, however, I am convinced that Shakespeare was trying to make a point to his teenage son, the point being, don’t be stupid.

Certainly, the play indicates that Shakespeare was dealing with teenagers at this point in his life, probably a freshman. No doubt, while Bill, Jr. was upstairs doing his homework one night, Bill Sr. and Mrs. S. had the kind of conversation that parents still have today.

“So, who’s this new girl, Julie?”

“Oh, Bill was out cruising with his buddies and he saw her and lost his mind. Again.”

“What happened to Rose? I thought he was in love with her?”

“That was last week. Have you had the talk with him yet?”

“No, but I better do that right now.”

So, Bill, Sr. trudges upstairs and braces himself for one of fatherhood’s more uncomfortable tasks.

“Hello, son. Do you need help with your composition homework?”

“No, Dad, but I could use some help with this algebra equation.”

“Oh, well, ask your mother to help you with that.”

“Gee, Dad, is that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Well, no. It’s time we had a talk.”

“A talk?”

“About girls.”

“Oh, I already know everything about them. Mercutio says if you tell them they’re pretty and blow in their ear, you might get all the way to second base.”

(Laughing) “That’s true, son! I remember when I was just about your age and this girl named Mona Lisa—nevermind. You just remember this: Keep thy love in thy pantaloons.”

So, Bill, Sr. goes downstairs and tells Mrs. S. all about the talk.

“That’s it? ‘Keep thy love in thy pantaloons’?”

“Well, I found myself at a loss for words.”

“That’s ironic.”

“Say, that gives me an idea! I’ll write a play showing just how dumb teenagers can be! That will convince him and all the other kids at Avon High that you can’t let your hormones run wild. Oh, it’ll be a hoot!”

Of course, Shakespeare forgot that most people don’t get satire, especially people whose brains are addled by good-looking girls in low cut dresses leaning over their balconies. So, when the kids in fact did NOT get it, and the critics proclaimed it a great love story, Bill, Sr. just kept quiet and collected the residuals. Scientific research done since that time has conclusively demonstrated that teenagers and theater critics rarely understand the thing that’s in front of them as was the case then.

Fortunately, in real life, things turned out much better for Bill, Jr. than they did for his fictional alter-ego. He made the basketball team his sophomore year and spent less time hanging around Mercutio and that young Sir Edward Haskell. He went on to Avon Community College and then Oxford, where he majored in mathematics and developed the theory that any number can be divided by zero, stating that if you have one pie and divide it no times, then you still have one pie. His theory was not accepted because his professors had a vested interest in the status quo.

Shakespeare’s play is not the greatest love story because Romeo and Juliet has nothing to do with love, at least for anyone whose cognitive processes take place above the belly button.

In any case, the greatest love story is one’s own.

Posted in Life is Interesting | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Chipmunks vs. Chuck Berry

Most people probably think of the song, “In the Mood,” as a quintessential, maybe the quintessential song of the Swing Era, yet it was played only once by any of the five bands that I heard at the recent Big Swing Thing in York, PA. Indeed, the song was the number one selling record for 13 straight weeks in 1940 and stayed on the Billboard charts for 30 weeks, yet, according to Wikipedia, it never reached higher than #15 in sheet music sales, which was considered the most accurate measure of real popularity at the time. The Big Swing Thing orchestras dug deep into the swing music catalogue to play songs that were quite popular with dancers then and I’m sure that many folks today have never heard of most of those songs that were played.

I bring this up to illustrate that what we think are the greatest songs because they are so representative to us, doesn’t mean that the people of the time judged them the same way.

Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is an excellent example of such a phenomenon. Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the Top 500 songs of all-time, yet at its peak, “Johnny B. Goode” only reached #8 (or #9, depending on your source) on the Billboard Hot 100. In researching what songs charted higher than what was to become one of the iconic tunes of the entire rock ‘n’ roll era, I found an interesting passage from Cecil Adams’ blog. Adams reviewed the composite chart for May of 1958 which found “Johnny B. Goode” ranked 11th for the month:

It got beaten out by the following tunes, some of which, God help me, I cannot remember, and some of which, God help me, I can’t forget: (1) “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” Everly Brothers; (2) “Witch Doctor,” David Seville; (3) “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” Elvis Presley; (4) “Twilight Time,” Platters; (5) “He’s Got The Whole World (In His Hands); (6) “Return To Me,” Dean Martin; (7) “Book of Love,” Monotones; (8) “Looking Back/Do I Like It,” Nat “King” Cole; (9) “Tequila,” Champs; (10) Oh Lonesome Me/I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” Don Gibson.

So, there you have it. At the time, “Witch Doctor,” by David Seville, a.k.a. Alvin & the Chipmunks, ranked nine spots ahead of “Johnny B. Goode” for May, 1958.

Given the way we revere him today, you would think that Chuck Berry, a man who would be placed on the Mt. Rushmore of Rock ‘n’ Roll if there was one, would have had a string of #1 hits, even if “Johnny B. Goode” was not among them. Surely, “Sweet Little Sixteen” or “Rock and Roll Music” or “Roll Over Beethoven” would have made it to #1, but they made it to #s 2, 8, and 29 respectively. The only Chuck Berry song to reach #1 was “My Ding-a-ling” in November of 1972. Not exactly a classic (even if it does still make me giggle.)

The ultimate lesson is this: The people of a certain era aren’t necessarily the best judge of things from their era. The history of “Johnny B. Goode” is just one example among songs, movies, and other works of art (or dare I say political figures?) that require time and perspective to be truly appreciated.

Posted in Life is Interesting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments