From the Front Lines to the Homefront: The Importance of War Films Then and Now

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the premiere of Fury Wednesday night and seeing the film (on film even!) reinforced what I know about World War II from the reels I see in NARA’s holdings on a regular basis. War is frighteningly loud; war is unbelievably gruesome; war reveals the best and worst traits of human beings. That being said, what struck me the most is how important film is in chronicling events from WWII in modern times and how important films were in documenting what happened at the time. Films were used to encourage enlistment, train troops, bolster morale, document the war, and inform troops and the American people about what was happening in Europe and the Pacific.

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The First Motion Picture unit in action.
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The United States military recognized the importance of motion pictures: Films could reach out to potential recruits, train troops, and disseminate information to the folks at home and soldiers spread across the planet. The Army Signal Corps had long been responsible for making training films, and after the United States’ entry into the war, the Army Air Forces got into motion pictures as well. In 1942, Gen. Hap Arnold commissioned studio head Jack Warner to establish the First Motion Picture Unit and contracted with Warner Bros. to produce Winning Your Wings, a film featuring Hollywood star and Army Air Force pilot Lt. James Stewart. Winning Your Wings is credited with inspiring 100,000 young men to enlist in the US Army Air Forces. The First Motion Picture Unit produced hundreds of films between 1942 and 1945.

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First Motion Picture Unit: Army Air Forces

Motion pictures were also vital to disseminating information about what was occurring throughout various fronts in the war and to inform the troops about what was going on at home. Newsreels produced by the military efficiently distributed information to members of the armed services. Subjects ranged from lighter topics, such as training war dogs, and training high schoolers to work in industry to bolster the war effort, to the way blood donations made their way to the front. Some of the footage in these digests is every bit as harrowing as some of the scenes in Fury as can be seen in this clip from the offensive on Tarawa. And, unlike in Hollywood, there are no sound effects, stunt doubles, or extras.

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 Army-Navy Screen Magazine #21 

At the same time, the Office of War Information ensured a steady stream of official films hit screens across the country. The OWI partnered with the Hollywood-based War Activities Committee for National Defense (run by George Schaefer, the former head of RKO Studios) to distribute films such as The Battle of Midway (1942) and With the Marines at Tarawa (1944)The Battle of Midway was the first time the American public saw troops engaging in battle in color and With the Marines at Tarawa was the first time audiences saw dead US Marines in color.

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The Battle of Midway

The legacies of the events of WWII live on because these moving images exist. As the veterans of WWII become fewer in number these reels will live on to tell the story of that era as only moving images can. While films like Fury are able to capture the sense of what it was like to live and die in a war the films in the collection at NARA can document the reality of life and death in a war zone.

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The Fury of Hell on Wheels: Tank Warfare, April 1945

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

Ten months after the D-Day invasion, Allied forces were sweeping through western Europe. Germany in April 1945 is often depicted as the Allies capturing scattered Axis soldiers and liberating citizens from the clutches of the Third Reich. Small offensives, cutting supply lines, and rounding up fractured German units was far from the reality of the situation, however. American troops encountered some of the most tenacious and ruthless fighting of the war and faced the cruelest and vilest of human nature as they liberated concentration camps throughout the region.

The culmination of the war in Europe brought with it the most mechanized force the planet had ever seen with the sheer firepower of the United States military. In spite of Allied superiority in weaponry, divisions often had to fight in close quarters with hand-to-hand combat. Limited maneuverability in small German towns resulted in heavy losses. The men fighting in Germany were either battle-hardened or green recruits, but all of them were sleepless and racing to end the war at breakneck speed. The new feature film, Fury, depicts the last month of the war in these startlingly real terms.

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Allied tanks in the German city of Koblenz. (Still from Universal News)

Fury’s fictionalized account of events at the end of the war focus on a small platoon within the 2nd Armored Division. The 2nd Armored Division was created in July 1940 under the command of then Colonel George S. Patton. Parts of the division were among the first U.S. military armored divisions serving in North Africa when they landed at Casablanca on November 8, 1942. After nine months the division moved on to Sicily in July of 1943. On June 9, 1944, the 2nd Armored Division landed on Omaha Beach in the invasion of the Normandy. There the division known as “Hell on Wheels” fought the Germans near Avranches and then crossed through France as part of the Third Army before reaching Germany in September 1944. The 2nd Armored Division was the first to reach the Elbe River in mid-April 1945, which is where the Fury story begins.

During their period of service in World War II, the 2nd Armored Division took 76,963 prisoners of war, liberated tens of thousands of Allied POWs, and destroyed or captured thousands of enemy tanks, including Panzers and Tigers. Between 1942 and 1945, the 2nd Armored Division lost 1,160 men in battle.

To get a sense of what the men of the Armored Divisions experienced as they fought to end the war, we can look to the Universal Newsreel Collection and see the stories the public was shown at the time. While there may not be specific footage of the 2nd Armored Division, these Universal News stories feature tank warfare in Germany during April 1945.

The Sherman Crab (aka Sherman M4 with Mine Flail) clears mines. Sherman tanks and infantry take Koblenz. [From 3:10 to 5:00]
Release date: April 5, 1945

 

Tank warfare, taking German POWs, and rocket attacks by The Third Army. [From 3:57 to 5:36]
Release date: April 9, 1945

 

Allied troops taking cities in West Germany, trying to keep the peace in conquered cities, and liberating work camps. [From 2:14 to 5:32]
Release date: April 23, 1945

The tank battles in Fury feature face-offs between the M4 Sherman and German Tiger tanks. Tank warfare was an integral part of the war in Europe and mechanization for the war effort occurred rapidly. At the start of the war, U.S. forces had only a handful of tanks in use even though light tanks had been in production since 1940. Medium M2 and M3 tanks, among others, soon went into production, first to supply to Britain, and later for use by the U.S. Army.

The new M4 Sherman rolled off the line in 1942 and was first employed in North Africa. Until the German Panzers up-gunned to 75mm L/48s in mid-1944, the M4 Sherman was clearly superior. New tanks introduced by Germany were a significant threat: the Panther and Tiger tanks had stronger armor and a longer firing range with more penetrating power and higher accuracy. The Shermans were not back on equal footing with German tanks until 76mm guns were added in December of 1944. While the Shermans were not as well armored as the German tanks they were much easier to maneuver and more adaptable so that tanks could be fitted with bulldozer blades (Sherman Dozer), rocket launchers (T34 Calliope), flame throwers (M4A3R3 Flame), and mine flails (Sherman Crab).

What is captured by Fury, that isn’t included in the Universal Newsreels is how horrific the conditions were that men faced at the end of the war. The Volkssturm protecting the towns in Germany, mainly made up of older men and Hitler Youth, were relentless and fanatical in their attempt to hold out against The Third Army. While the Allies won the day in the long run, they paid dearly for the honor in men, minds, and morale.

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A Curious Alice Coloring Book

I still remember the coloring book I received after a man from the power company came to my school and showed us a cartoon about a cat that is repeatedly “zapped” when it makes bad decisions around electricity. Like visits from the fire department and McGruff the Crime Dog, coloring books are a staple of public safety education for children.

Much to my delight, I recently learned that the early anti-drug education film Curious Alice was no exception. In its 1971 publication “A Guide to Drug Abuse Education and Information Materials,” the National Institute of Mental Health (the government agency that made the psychedelic cartoon) laid out its plans for elementary schoolers. An activity book was part of a planned educational package that included the film, posters, and pamphlets.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the activity book made it into the permanent records of the National Archives. We were, however, able to obtain a copy via interlibrary loan. I scanned the booklet and am featuring some of the best pages in this post. You can download a PDF of the complete booklet here. The booklet contains a range of activities, from class activities like a drug abuse “science experiment” that utilizes a stalk of celery and a pantomime game where a suggested action is the caterpillar smoking his hookah, to individual activities like coloring pages and fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

The Best of the Curious Alice Activity Book

In this exercise, school children are presented with a set of drawings of cartoon characters using drugs. The child is expected to circle the drug and write its name on the line below the picture.
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Here’s the White Rabbit in connect-the-dot form:

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…and here are some of the best coloring pages. If you would like to color of one of these yourself, click on the image. It will open in a separate tab and you can print from there. If you want to share, take a picture and tweet it to @NARAMediaLabs.

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Since the Curious Alice booklet is not technically in the holdings of the National Archives, I’m rounding out this post with a public service announcement from the Everly Brothers. The same year that the National Institute for Mental Health released Curious Alice and the accompanying activity book, Don and Phil Everly filmed an advertisement warning the public about the dangers of amphetamines.

For more on early government anti-drug education, see my post on A Day in the Death of Donny B.

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This Week in Universal News: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is Sworn In, 1967

On October 2, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice. Marshall had a long history of fighting for civil rights in the legal system, most famously when he argued against school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Marshall served on the Supreme Court until 1991. He died in 1993.

From the release sheet:

JUSTICE MARSHALL Thurgood Marshall, great-grandson of a slave and the first Negro to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, tries on his official robes. President Johnson named him to replace retiring justice Tom Clark.

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Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall with his family.

You may view the complete reel, which includes stories about the start of the 1967 World Series, a train crash near the India-Pakistan border, and others, on our YouTube channel.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.

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The Washington Nationals vs. The New York Giants, 1933

As the Washington, D.C. area descends into playoff fever, The Unwritten Record takes a look back to the last postseason match-up between the Nationals and the Giants, the 1933 World Series contest between the American League’s Washington Nationals (also known as the Senators) and the National League’s New York Giants.* The action was covered in two Universal newsreels, released October 4th and October 9th 1933. The soundtracks for these reels no longer exist, but the footage and supplemental material in the production files have survived.

Game one, played in New York October 3rd, 1933, is shown in Universal News Vol. 5, Rel. 186. According to the release sheet, we see “Mel Ott’s first inning homer, Goose Goslin’s four sacker and that famous sixth inning slaughter of the innocents.”

Game three was played October 5th at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., with President Roosevelt throwing out the the first pitch. Washington beat New York 4-0. According to the cameraman’s “dope sheet,” Will Hays (most famous for the Hollywood production code that bore his name) was also in attendance. The story was covered as a “local” in Universal News Vol. 5, Rel. 187 and shown only in the Washington D.C. area.

The final game in the series shown in Universal News Vol. 5, Rel. 187. The outcome wasn’t great for Washington fans: On October 7th, the Giants took the series four games to one by beating the Senators 4 to 3 in extra innings in game five. The release sheet describes “unusual action pictures of the home run by Mel Ott that clinched the game after a delayed decision by the umpires.” The older gentleman in the stands that the cameraman settles on is Judge Kenesaw M. Landis, the first commissioner of baseball.

Also included in the Universal News production files are original programs for the games, narration scripts, and other related paraphernalia.

nyprogram-s1933 World Series program for games hosted in New York.

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1933 World Series program for games hosted in Washington, D.C.

Wondering who played? The programs offer photos of players and staff. These line-ups come from the New York program. Click to enlarge the images.

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The complete surviving newsreels of Vol. 5, Rel. 186 and Vol. 5, Rel. 187 may be viewed on our YouTube channel.

*The current Nationals team is, of course, not related to the 1933 team. That franchise moved to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961.

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Declassified Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings – 4th Quarter

In an effort to provide information on recently declassified motion pictures and sound recordings the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch will publish a quarterly list of newly declassified records.

From July 1, 2014 through September 30, 2014 the following records were declassified.

Motion Pictures:

Local Identifier           Title

342-SFP-387 Operation of System 119-L

 

 

Sound Recordings:

Local Identifier           Title

No sound recordings were declassified during this quarter.

 

Descriptive information for declassified records can be accessed by searching for the item number, ex. “341-IR-38-56”, in NARA’s Catalog (OPA). You may also search on the Declassification Project Number (NND), if you know one. For example, searching on the declassification number “NND 64803” returns entries that are part of Declassification Project 64803. A list of declassified textual records can be found on the National Declassification Center’s web page.

Check out the post “From Top Secret Vault to Open Stacks: Declassification of Moving Images” to learn more about the declassification process. Lists of other recently declassified moving images and sound recordings can be located by clicking on the Declassification Quarterly Reports category on the left side of the blog.

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Daring Deliveries: The U.S. Post Office and the Birth of Commercial Aviation

At the beginning of the 20th century, dreams of flying morphed from science fiction to reality. From the Wright Brothers’ early expeditions in Kitty Hawk, to the World War I fighter pilots in Europe, the airplane generated excitement around the world. Yet despite intense interest and publicity, the airplane’s practicality was still in doubt. Although people were enthralled at the prospect of aviation, most had no intentions of leaving the ground. Luckily, the fears surrounding aviation were quelled by an unlikely government agency, the United States Postal Service.

De Havilland Plane, one of the first used to carry mail (28-MS-1C-63)

Early aviation was not for the faint of heart. Most aircraft did not have enclosed cabins, which subjected pilots to freezing temperatures and treacherous winds. Planes were not always equipped with wheel brakes, and small engines often led to disastrous results. Many pilots were forced to abandon ship while many others tragically went down with their planes. Serviceable runways were scarce and established airports with lights and radio services were even scarcer. These conditions made air travel, especially commercial flight, a dubious agenda.

Yet the prospects of flying were too great to ignore. Backed by government funding, the Post Office began an experimental air mail route from Washington D.C. to New York in 1918.  Additional funding was given to improve navigational aids, radio communication, and provide weather information. Through the 1920s, the original mail route expanded to incorporate “feeder routes” that connected major cities across the country.

Aerial view over Washington Monument (28-MS-1A-55)

The Post Office’s role in aviation changed when Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1925. The Air Mail Act, also known as the Kelly Act, mandated that the Post Office contract out their air mail routes to independent companies. Senator Clyde Kelly, the bill’s congressional voice, hoped that airlines would reinvest profits earned from carrying air mail into establishing passenger services.

Many companies bid for the right to fly the mail.  By 1929, there were 44 separate companies flying 53 different routes. The Robertson Aircraft Corporation, for example, won the bidding for Contract Air Mail Route 2 from Chicago to St. Louis. Robertson’s chief pilot was a young aviator named Charles Lindbergh. During his time with the post office, Lindbergh was forced to bail out of his plane on two separate occasions.

Charles A. Lindbergh Loading Cargo, Lambert Field, St. Louis, 1925

Yet the large number of small mail carriers was not profitable and companies did not reinvest in commercial aviation services. In 1930 Congress passed another Air Mail Act.  The act gave the postmaster general the authority to grant contracts to large, well financed companies. Small companies morphed into giant corporations. The Robertson Aircraft Corporation merged with other small companies to form what would eventually become American Airlines. These giant conglomerates created more efficient mail delivery systems, and for the first time, efficient passenger services.

Air mail display at the Post Office in Manteca, California. Dec. 15, 1939. (28-MS-3B-5)

Yet the formation of huge airline companies raised suspicions. A scandal mounted in 1934 when the former Postmaster General, Walter Brown, was accused of colluding with the airlines. Democrats under Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted that Brown, a Republican, created a monopoly within the aviation industry and favored Republican airline owners. As a result of the scandal, all government contracts were cancelled, and, for a brief time the United States Army carried the air mail.

The Army, however, was ill-equipped to carry the mail. Planes were unable to fly in inclement weather and many inexperienced pilots died in the attempt. The Army’s mail delivery system was short-lived.  Only a few months after the scandal, contracts were returned to the large airlines.

Air mail plane on display in Times Square, New York (28-MS-1C-115)

Had it not been for the Post Office and early air mail services, the commercial industry would not have prospered in the manner that it did. Government subsidies allowed airlines to build a customer base and gradually incorporate passenger service. The decision to invest in large airlines had lasting effects on the commercial airline industry. Furthermore, the consistency in which the air mail was delivered helped assure the public that flying was safe. During a time when imaginations soared, the Post Office was soaring along side.

The photos above all come from Record Group 28-MS. Records of the Post Office Department of Mail Services. In addition to the pictures from the Air Mail services, the Still Pictures division has a large number of photos pertaining to individual Post Offices, Post Office artwork, and Post Office construction.  The Motion Picture division has recently digitized a film from 1938 celebrating the 20th anniversary of air mail which can be viewed here.

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This Week in Universal News: A Drive-In Movie for Horses, 1954.

For the release of a new short film about Austria’s Lipizzan horses, Universal-International, the maker of Universal News, staged a special publicity event at a drive-in movie theater.

From the release sheet:

“HORSE NIGHT” AT THE DRIVE-IN, CALIFORNIA – “Horse night” at the drive-in. An enterprising theatre manager sets up oats and rye on the rocks and invites the equine crowd in for a special showing of Universal-International’s short subject, “Stallions On Parade.”

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Movie-goers enjoy the drive-in with their horses.

You may view the complete newsreel, which includes stories about a deadly typhoon in Japan, daring parachuting tricks in France, the opening of the World Series, and others, on our YouTube Channel.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.

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A Mitzvah to Serve

This post was written by Marcia Kolko. Marcia is an archives specialist in the National Archives Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch.

September represents one of the holiest months of the year for members of the Jewish faith, as it includes the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is worth noting then, that the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch has within its holdings a 1969, color film entitled A Mitzvah to Serve.

Wikipedia will tell you that the Hebrew word “mitzvah” is often defined as a moral deed performed as a religious duty. A more cultural description of the word might be an act of human kindness. Either use of the word is apparent in this orientation film which presents the meaning, responsibilities and value of Jewish lay leadership in the armed forces. Scenes examine how American Jewish servicemen participated in (and, in the absence of a rabbi, often led) holiday and weekly religious services in Vietnam, as well as other postings around the globe. According to documents in the production file, the film was intended to recruit servicemen of all faiths to participate in the lay leadership program, as well as serve as a resource for Christian Chaplains who had “the prime responsibility for the spiritual life of Jewish soldiers.”

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A Jewish lay leadership volunteer conducts a religious service for soldiers stationed overseas. (Still from A Mitzvah to Serve.)

In interviews throughout the film, soldiers relate how the services they attended strengthened their Jewish identity and provided a community for them in an otherwise gentile environment. The film’s title A Mitzvah to Serve is undoubtedly making a reference not only to the importance of volunteering for military service, but also to the responsibility and kindness of leading others at a religious gathering in the absence of a rabbi.

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This Week in Universal News: Winter Hat Fashions for 1956.

Long considered an essential accessory, this week’s featured Universal News story shows us the latest in hat fashions for the 1956-1957 winter season.

From the release sheet:

HAT FASHIONS
In New York, creations of the country’s foremost milliners for the November to January season are previewed. Ranging from chic miniature pillboxes to resplendent toques and turbans, the mood is appropriately festive.

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 A range of the latest hat fashions are modeled.

You may view the complete reel, which includes stories about Hurricane Flossie, and the death of athlete Babe Didrikson, known as the world’s greatest woman athlete, among others, on our YouTube Channel. The soundtrack for this reel no longer exists.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.

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