Classic Movies that Help Us Remember the Heroes on Memorial Day

Most of us weren’t on the front lines in France or fighting in Iwo Jima, but classic war movies from the 1940s can help us appreciate the sacrifices that those soldiers made.

Poster for Twelve O Clock High starring Gregory Peck
Detail from poster for Twelve O’Clock High (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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Memorial Day will have the usual observances this year. The ceremony at the Tombs of the Unknowns, the TV shots of Arlington National Cemetery with the graves decorated with flowers or small flags as tribute to the fallen. For unlike Veterans Day in November, Memorial Day remembers the dead — those who served their country and, in too many cases, died in one of the many battles found in history books.

Some 16 million men and women left their jobs in the local drug store or the neighborhood garage, at a desk in an insurance company or the blackboard in a high school, on the farm or in a factory or kitchen, to go off to war, to save their country … and the world.

And they did.

At a price. The National World War II Museum total of those who died — 407,315.

The price they paid, even those who survived and came home, may be seen by those like me in World War II movies. A custom on TV over Memorial Day Weekend. Whether based on actual events or simply fictional depictions of the war, they have helped me understand, in ways I could not otherwise, what the men endured, sacrificed, went through. Day after day, month after month, year after year, for there was no rotation home after a year. You were in “for the duration.”

Poster for the film "The Story of G.I. Joe"
Theatrical release poster for the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) is a good example. Reportedly the favorite World War II movie of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, it focuses on the infantryman (perhaps why Ike liked it). The story is told through the beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Ernie Pyle, who also left home and went off to war — but with a typewriter. He marched with the guys with the guns, ducked enemy fire with them, and wrote his reports for the folks back home.

Twelve O’Clock High, although fictional, is one of the best World War II films. It’s set in England in the early days of the war when the U.S. Eighth Air Force was struggling to meet the challenge it faced, set out early in the film when the commanding general sends Gregory Peck down to the main air base to whip the men into shape.

Poster for the film "Twelve O'Clock High
Twelve O’Clock High (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

If Allied bombers can’t destroy the German factories, turning out the weapons of war — however dangerous the daylight raids, deep into enemy territory with no fighter protection — we will lose the war.

The film may be fictional. But the Eighth Air Force established early a policy of 25 missions for a crew. They could ask no more of a man.

Destination Tokyo is a fictional account of a vital mission in the Pacific. Cary Grant plays the submarine captain who, one day out, per custom, opens the safe in his quarters and pulls out the envelop with his mission. Sail into Tokyo Bay, notwithstanding the massive underwater nets designed to keep enemy subs and other ships out. (Cross your fingers, hold your breath time.)

Trailer for Destination Tokyo (uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

In Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, based on pilot Ted Lawson’s book, about the Doolittle Raid, as it came to be known. It was a joint Army-Navy mission led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (played by Spencer Tracy in the film) that trained at a secret base. Main objective: to train pilots of American B-25 bombers to lift off the runway at a point an aircraft carrier’s deck ended. The morning of April 18, 1942, 16 American B-25s took off from the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet and headed for Japan. They bombed a number of sites but the one everyone remembers: Tokyo.

Trailer for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

After weeks of bad news — not just Pearl Harbor but the loss of Wake Island. Fall of Guam. The Philippines. Bataan. General Douglas MacArthur evacuated from Corregidor and eventually flown to Australia. It is important enough in our history that just the other day, when the last survivor of the Doolittle Raid died, I saw a story on his passing. Almost 80 years later, it was news.

There are potboilers among the World War II movies, of course. But if you select well, there are others I’ve not listed here, such as The Longest Day, the near perfect record of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy; or Battleground, a fictional account of the Battle of the Bulge, the last and deadliest battle in Europe, when in December 1944 the Germans launched a last, desperate counter-attack.

Granted, watching a movie cannot make you truly feel the sense of danger, despair, at incoming mortars or machine-gun fire, seeing your buddies fall, die, too often in your arms.

But it helps us to understand what happened, and to recognize the magnitude of the sacrifice these soldiers made.

Featured image: Detail from poster for Twelve O’Clock High (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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  1. It doesn’t tell the entire story of D – Day, but it does depict the part which people are most aware of, the first wave landing on Omaha Beach: the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

    Those first twenty minutes are shocking. I cannot imagine that the horror and terror of warfare have ever been dramatized more graphically. I do know that many Normandy survivors had to walk out of the theater. Those who were able to stand it have said in their invariably taciturn way that those first twenty minutes were as close to an accurate recreation of what it was like as they think it would be possible to make. ( I don’t think there are such creatures as loquacious combat veterans. My great grandfather fought in the Civil War. He lived until my father was ten, and my father remembered him well. He said that all the old man would ever say, and he said it with deep sadness, was that most of the boys he’d grown up with had been killed or severely maimed.

    Twenty years ago, in a conversation with a taxi driver whose fare I was, I learned he’d participated in one of the greatest masterstrokes in military history, the Inchon invasion. Inchon! I’m still in awe.

    “It was rough,” was all he would say. )

    You don’t have to pay to see Saving Private Ryan to see those first twenty minutes. At least up until several days ago, they were readily available on YouTube. If you wonder about the quality of the nightmare which is combat, I urge you to watch them. They are rough, and then some.

  2. Thanks for this feature, Val. It’s important that we remember what Memorial Day means, the lives lost and sacrifices made for this country at that time. It’s not just another patriotic-themed Holiday lumped in with 4th of July and Labor Day. Not at all!

    I appreciate these film selections you’ve included here. The fact they were made at the time gives them a lot more credibility and authenticity than others. I’d like to watch these two for the closest thing to a realistic look at what happened, and what these soldiers did and experienced. It’s mind boggling. You’re referred to as ‘The Greatest Generation’ for a reason (!) and these films help illustrate why.

    They also featured the greatest generation of actors and actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and that the major movie studios then knew they had a responsibility to tell these stories in a respectful. accurate manner. The exact opposite of the horrible 2001 film ‘Pearl Harbor’ which was ONLY made by the ‘pyrotechnic pig’ Michael Bay to capitalize on his endless explosions, period. Someone like that wouldn’t of even had a job in the ’40s film industry.


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