For our “Beyond the World War II We Know,” documenting lesser-known stories from the war, and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, we asked the Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks to write about the complicated narrative of the conflict — and its aftermath.
In the spring of 1939 — “Before the War,” as folks of that generation would say — the New York World’s Fair began a gloriously naïve celebration of “Mankind’s Progress” and visions of America’s future. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the fair in a ceremony that was, no lie, broadcast on television. In fact, there were early versions of TVs on display at the fair, along with state-of-the-art railroad trains, airplanes, ocean liners, Crosley radios, a giant typewriter and the new Ford sedans fairgoers could drive themselves on the “Road of Tomorrow” — an upbeat adieu! to the Great Depression, to what was the first act of many American lives.
If you are a Boomer, born in, say, 1956, the adults you grew up around all framed their lives in a three-act structure, told like a biopic, narrated by an All-Knowing Chorus who bids us to, please, clear our minds of all we have seen and learned since 1945. To comprehend the full experience of World War II we must forget all we know.
In Act I (Before the War) most families did without — without enough food, without an extra pair of shoes, without going to a dentist. A father’s job, if he had one, might allow a life within modest means when modest means was an accomplishment. Act I was characterized by a quest for progress: huge dams were built; federal programs improved lives; mass communication was as simple as listening to a radio; and the art and technology of motion pictures provided a cheap but wonderful escape. At the same time, a child with a common cold could die of pneumonia in a few weeks.
Before the war, Americans faced one-thing-after-another-obstacles as the country was crippled by widespread poverty, overt racism and institutionalized discrimination. And yet, the 1939 fair proved that we the people remained bent on forming a more perfect union — and a better world.
As in all drama, bad omens abounded. At the 1939 fair, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had halls of their own. The Japanese hall — a replica of a Shinto Shrine — was “Dedicated to Eternal Peace and Friendship Between America and Japan.” Poland was represented, but within five months of the fair’s opening, its borders had been redrawn by Germany and the U.S.S.R.; by the end of the fair, there was no Polish pavilion because there was no longer a Poland.
By then, Germany had been operating its concentration camps for years. With Italy’s help, the nations of Europe and whole peoples were enslaved by Nazi terror. Imperial Japan had established a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” a cleaned-up name for what was actually an imperialist undertaking that included horrors like the Rape of Nanking.
Act II (During the War) began on a day of infamy just before Christmas, 1941, when Americans learned our Navy had a base at Pearl Harbor (in Hawaii, the dispatches felt obliged to add) which had been devastated by attacking Japanese planes. The pledge of eternal peace and friendship with America proved to be as permanent as what it was at the fair — writing on a wall.
“Well, you have to understand,” says the Chorus, “that was During the War, when time stood still in the hang-fire of stasis. Our equilibrium was swamped by civil strife. Americans were relegated to purgatory, between a victory and Heaven or a defeat and Hell.”
No questions posed in Act II had answers. How far would the field of battle extend? How many people were going to die, by starvation, by freezing, by drowning, by cannon or bomb — and who would those unfortunates be? If Pearl Harbor (in Hawaii, you say?) can be attacked, will Seattle be next? Or San Diego? If London can be set afire by Nazi bombers at night, imagine the flames when Boston is raided.
Conscientious, able-bodied Americans enlisted in the armed forces “for the duration of the war, plus six months,” as the draft messaging had it. The War Department had estimates for the number of casualties, schedules for how many weeks battles would go on, and long-term strategies for how the war would be won, but those were ballpark figures. By Christmas of 1943, the fighting was raging on both sides of the planet. The sayings that emerged were indicative of just how hazy the conflict’s end was: “Out of the sticks in ’46”; “Not done ’til ’51”; and even “Keep alive til ’55.”
Information came by newsreels and ever-changing maps, the dispatches of war correspondents, and, via the radio, the words of a calm, informed president. Luxuries were rare; commodities were rationed.
A common saying, to anyone selfish enough to complain, was “Don’t you know there is a war on?” which got a guffaw at the filling station where there was neither fuel nor tires. Hanging above factory shop floors were warnings that “He who relaxes is helping the Axis.” “Do your part” was a duty that most people lived up to.
That might all sound cute to modern ears, but the war years were anything but. Black markets sprang up. Japanese-Americans — U.S. citizens — were forced into detention camps at the cost of their livelihoods, freedom and dignity. The segregation of the armed forces was so systemic that violence against Black soldiers by white soldiers was not uncommon, though often hushed up.
Boys who had just graduated from high school — the classes of ’41-’44 — died in North Africa, in the mountains of Italy and on the coral reefs at Tarawa. Death-by-telegram came knocking at your neighbor’s door, if not yours.
From our seats in 2020, we know how this Second Act ends. We’ve seen the movie; it’s no surprise that Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains team up in the fog at the Casablanca airfield. But for those who tell of it — who survived the Second World War — the end of their second act was never scripted.
Three and a half years after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Allies had ended the Nazi reign, razed city after city, killed many Germans and exposed the barbarity of National Socialism. For millions, V-E Day — May 8, 1945 — was a dream come true, a joyful roar in a grand moment for humanity, a day of parades and peaceful flyovers with sailors kissing nurses in the streets.
If only V-E Day had been the conclusion to Act II. But to the thousands of Americans still slugging it out in the Pacific Theater (and their families back home), V-E Day warranted but a few paragraphs in Stars and Stripes, the armed forces newspaper. There was, still, a war going on in places with more of the unfamiliar names Americans had to search out in the World Atlas, more tiny specks of black ink in a blue map. Where, exactly, is Okinawa? Why is there a battle at some place called Balikpapan?
“For the duration” muted the ebullience of V-E Day, even as magazines and newspapers carried ads for TVs and new fashions. War bonds were still being advertised to “Help Finish the Job!” opposite pages with a puff piece extolling the charms of a recent debutante. Pretending the war was over was imagining it would miraculously disappear.
In the winter of 1944 and ’45 and spring of ’45, America’s new B-29 bombers dropped incendiaries on Japanese cities that ignited maelstroms of fire, burning to death thousands of men, women and children in hellscapes straight out of Dante. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drafted that would dwarf the D-Day landings at Normandy the previous spring. American troops — many of them veterans from the battlefields of Europe — were being assembled on the West Coast. As late as the first week of August 1945, the end of World War II was but a patch of clear sky on the horizon. From hell to heaven in ’47? Maybe.
Without notice, in a moment beyond the comprehension of ordinary people, a most hideous week brought the war to a shocking, sudden end. In the blink of an eye, something reduced the city of Hiroshima into a landscape of molten glass, disappearing tens of thousands of its inhabitants, leaving no trace of them but their shadows. Three days later the city of Kokura would have suffered the same destruction, but smoke obscured the bomb drop, so Nagasaki, the backup target, was annihilated instead.
Days later, the Japanese emperor announced the end of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Just like that, the war was over, though upheaval continued in various parts of the globe. Though peace came much too late for millions of souls, the cue was called for the Act II curtain.
Japan agreed to surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Everyone who remembers V-J Day carries the emotional baggage and physical muscle memory of the war like so many stones in their pockets. What they saw, how they served, their luck and good timing, the miracles and daily drudgery of those years, why they survived when so many didn’t, remain traced in their synapses.
Act II ended 75 years ago in a defining moment of unconditional surrender. Most of the victors are gone now, all those sailors and soldiers, airmen and nurses. Younger eyewitnesses to the war are passing on. Those of us alive now acknowledge, sadly, that Act III — After the War — which began before the ink was dry on the Articles of Surrender — will never end, not in any equal measure of satisfaction. Disinformation is now a weapon and a currency. Tyrants reign around the world. Wars are waged in stalemates. Seventy-five years ago, it seemed that a grand contract had been agreed upon by all the nations of the world, that our common efforts had created a common purpose, born of the horrible lessons learned in World War II.
The Times’s World War II project is, in part, about both Act II, the culmination of it, anyway, and Act III, the war’s endlessly complicated aftermath. There are too many actors competing for the role of that all-knowing Chorus. The cast of characters is far too large, for it includes everyone reading these words.
Tom Hanks’ latest movie, which he stars in and wrote, is “Greyhound,” about the Battle of the Atlantic, available to stream on Apple TV+.