On the Front Lines

blog book 2When I started at Lerner, the first books I read were the old In Grandma’s Day series. I love reading about family life in other eras—how different some aspects were and how many others seem the same. One of my favorite periods is the World War II era. That’s my parents’ generation, and I grew up hearing stories about their experiences, looking at old photos from my mother’s keepsake book, listening to Big Band music, and watching the movies they loved. So when Lerner produced Growing Up in World War II and America in the 1940s, I eagerly read them.

The home front was always my primary interest in reading social history from that era. But lately I’ve become very interested in women’s experiences in war. Some time last year, I watched Band of Brothers on cable and loved it. I thought, There are hardly any women in this entire miniseries, and it’s still interesting! Then I thought, Wait, why aren’t there women? Weren’t there US nurses in Europe in World War II? You’d think Easy Company would’ve at least passed by a couple. So I did a little research and discovered that, yes, tens of thousands of US nurses served in Europe (and in North Africa and the Pacific). Some arrived on Normandy’s beaches days after D-Day. They crossed Europe close behind the troops, assembling and disassembling field and evacuation hospitals as they went.

This information sent me on an amazon.com expedition. I wanted to hear the nurses’ stories firsthand, and luckily, several books on the market are based on primary source material. I’m currently reading And If I Perish. The women’s stories are remarkable. When army nurses first arrived in the Philippines in the late 1930s, they were expected to wear picture hats and high heels for publicity photos. They had no military rank or benefits. By 1942, army nurses were slogging through snow and mud (or blistering heat) in boots, helmets, and olive drab combat uniforms. They faced the realities of war with amazing courage. After the war, some stayed in Europe to tend to the victims of concentration camps, while others returned home to serve in veterans’ hospitals.

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But I haven’t forsaken the home front. With the help of my movie buff father-in-law, I’ve collected a few home-front-themed movies. Being a huge Myrna Loy fan, I started with The Best Years of Our Lives, the bittersweet story of returning soldiers trying to rebuild their relationships with their wives and girlfriends. Now I’m in the middle of Since You Went Away, in which Claudette Colbert raises two teenage girls alone after her ad-exec husband joins the army. As I said, it’s always fascinating to see how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same.

2 thoughts on “On the Front Lines

  1. ekariniemi

    Great stuff! WWII in Finland meant the front and the home front blended all to much and the country was pretty much 100% mobilized for years. Women's voluntary paramilitary auxiliary organization Lotta Svard, largest in the world http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotta_Sv%C3%A4rd welcomed teenage girls, too, my mother among them, working mostly at air-raid warning posts close to the front and as an interpreter and messenger, while going to school, helping take care of younger siblings, milking their cow, being evacuated twice, etc. Later she obtained a profession and family and lives in secure retirement with my father. Life after the war has been prosperous and full, she has full mental faculties still and then some, but war leaves psychic wounds, always. Wartime is mostly what she now talks about. And I listen.

  2. Ann Kerns

    “the front and the home front blended all to much” Very good point. I just watched a show on the History Channel that talked about Finland during the early years of the war. It also featured primary source info from a woman in Normandy whose small family chateau was occupied the Germans. Same thing–the front was literally at her door.

    I would love to hear your mother's stories–good and bad. The war era left a deep impression on my mother, too. After seeing so many young men from her Chicago neighborhood ship off, she wanted very badly to become an army nurse. But the army wouldn't take her because she had a heart murmur. So she worked in Chicago as a nurses' aide. But my aunt, her little sister, became an army nurse. She retired in the 1980s as a brigadier general!

    Thanks for your fascinating comment.

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