History of the World According to the Movies: Part 70 – World War II: The American Home Front

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The 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy is about the story of the Manhattan Project and the development of the Atomic Bomb. Paul Newman is seen here playing General Leslie Groves while a guy named Dwight Schultz plays the legendary Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Nevertheless, while Richard Joffe does get some things right, the story is more suited for his political viewpoints and it’s far from the historic truth. For one, it was Oppenheimer’s dream job to work in the Manhattan Project (while Groves would rather be leading combat troops) and he and Groves got along famously, despite being polar opposites in personality for they both wanted the same thing. Also, Oppenheimer and many of his fellow scientists didn’t have any second thoughts about dropping the atom bombs until after they found out about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also, Paul Newman was way too handsome to be General Groves.

Of course, while there wasn’t much attacking on US soil besides Pearl Harbor, it didn’t mean that there wasn’t much going on in the home front. Like the British, Americans did experience rationing, air raid drills, sending bacon grease and scrap metal to the war effort, women working in munitions factories as well as families waiting for their loved ones to come home from the war. Yet, in other ways, it was unique with WWII propaganda films as well as movies from Hollywood, the USO, the role of racial minorities, and other things. You have Japanese American internment camps that were filled with a group of people who were displaced mostly due to ethnicity, culture, and they or their ancestors came from an enemy of the US at the time. Oh, and racism as well of suspicion of disloyalty did have a lot to do with it, too. Yet, the disloyalty of Japanese Americans was somehow put to rest since 20,000 of them fought in the war. You have the Tuskegee Airmen who were an elite unit aerial African American fighters whose overcoming of racism and adversity greatly contributed to their success. Then there’s the Manhattan Project which would be famous for developing one of the most deadly weapons in human history and usher in the atomic age. Nevertheless, while there are plenty of movies made about the American home front, there are plenty of inaccuracies in them as well, which I shall list.

Japanese American Internment:

Japanese Americans were the only group in America to be rounded to internment camps. (Actually, they were the only group to be interred who were mostly American born. German and Italian Americans were also interred but these numbers were small and only pertained to first generation or legal aliens.)

Almost all Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II. (Actually you may think this is true but not really. Most of the Japanese Americans interned were living on the West Coast, particularly in California where interment was popular among white farmers who resented their Japanese American counterparts {most Japanese Americans there at the time were farmers}. Not to mention, California wasn’t a state known by its friendliness toward Japanese Americans, just the opposite. Anti-Japanese bias on the West Coast was prevalent at this time. By contrast, Hawaii only sent a very small portion of their Japanese American population to internment camps {mostly prominent politicians and community leaders} since the area had been on martial law already and the risk of sabotage and espionage by Japanese residents on the islands was low. Not to mention, 35% of their population had Japanese ancestry and they were active in almost every sector of its economy. Had Hawaii had most of their Japanese American population interred, the then-territory would’ve had its economy crippled. Over 50,000 Japanese Americans on Hawaii remained undisturbed during the course of the war mostly due to being too economically viable to evict.)

The AAGPBL:

The AAGPBL played regulation baseball. (Contrary to A League of Their Own, they actually played a baseball/softball hybrid game. In its first years it was closer to softball.)

Racine won the 1943 World Series in a 7 game series against the Rockford Peaches. (It was in a 5 game series against the Kenosha Comets.)

The Tuskegee Airmen:

Not a single Tuskegee Airman was shot down by enemy fire. (66 Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action and they didn’t have an official flying ace even though one may have had enough unregistered kills to qualify. 25 of their bombers were lost to enemy fire.)

The Tuskegee Airmen was created to prove that blacks could effectively fly a plane. (They were trained by racist instructors who washed trainees out for the smallest mistakes to prove that African Americans were unsuitable to be fighter pilots. The result was hand-picked elite that wiped the floor with everything they met as well as were provided the best protection of all US Army Air Force fighter groups in Europe. Thus, contrary to Red Tails, their status as an elite fighting unit was almost purely accidental and as a result of training from hell.)

The Manhattan Project:

Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes” was played during the countdown of the Trinity atomic test in Alamogordo, New Mexico. (Actually it was Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade of Strings” but this is a minor error in Fat Man and Little Boy.)

Frenzied nuclear weapon expansion had been driven from the outset by pigheaded militarists intimidating morally sensitive scientists into doing what they knew to be wrong. (Sorry, Richard Joffe, but this is wrong. Nuclear expansion served the best interests of the military and the Manhattan Project scientists. Maybe they knew designing the bomb was wrong, but they greatly underestimated the bomb’s potential for wiping humanity which came to haunt them after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

General Leslie R. Groves was a warmongering jerk and strutting martinet. (Yes, he was a jerk as Major General Kenneth Nichols called him “the biggest son of a bitch I’ve ever met in my life. I hated his guts and so did everyone.” He was known to be arrogant, socially awkward, as well extremely sarcastic. Yet, even he said that his commander was one of the “most capable individuals” he ever met. He’s said to be an organizer without equal as well as a tireless leader who held together the far-flung elements of the Manhattan Project, which employed 125,000 workers at facilities nationwide. Not to mention, he was the guy in charge of building the Pentagon which was the reason he was picked to lead the Manhattan Project in the first place. He was also a student of MIT before transferring to West Point, where he graduated 4th in his class. Then again, his security measures weren’t the most adequate since Los Alamos employees named Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass {brother-in-law to Julius Rosenberg} were still able to smuggle atom bomb details to the Soviets, which Fat Man and Little Boy doesn’t address.)

General Leslie Groves was happy leading the Manhattan Project. (Groves actually didn’t want to lead the Manhattan Project, which he called, “Oh, that thing” and later chafed at being a taskmaster to “the largest collection of eggheads in the world.” He had longed to lead combat troops into war but his career had languished in the corps of engineers and his leadership of the Pentagon’s construction was a success, that he was the most likely candidate. He only changed his mind about the job when he saw that the Manhattan Project was his opportunity for glory and worked unceasingly to the end.)

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists were against the idea of the atom bomb and felt guilty about being a part of the Manhattan Project for the rest of their lives. (Well, yes, many Manhattan Project scientists did regret their roles in the Manhattan Project but only after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were known, unlike in Fat Man and Little Boy. He would become a vocal opponent of the development of the even more powerful H-bomb though. But during the atomic bomb’s designing phase, Oppenheimer craved a job at Los Alamos so badly that he’d even be interested in obtaining an army commission to curry favor with General Groves. Once hired in 1942, Oppenheimer worked on the Manhattan Project with appropriate martial zeal as well as gave an idea of poisoning the Germans’ food with radiation. Most of his fellow scientists supported nuking Japan as well and had a big celebration after the bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered.)

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a quiet, moralistic, and easy going man. (Actually though kind of bohemian and witty, this was a guy who stole chemicals and tried to kill his own tutor for making him attend classes on experimental physics which he hated {he preferred theoretical}. This was while he was studying for his doctorate in physics at Cambridge University.  He also betrayed his friend Haakon Chevalier, a literature professor at Berkeley, as someone who had contacted him about sharing secrets with the Russians when asked by the FBI to name names during his time at Los Alamos {though he’d later regret this and said he invented this “cock and bull” story but Chaevalier’s career was ruined because of him, though Oppenheimer might’ve named him to protect his brother who was a known Communist Party member}. Also, contrary to Fat Man and Little Boy, he was a much more outgoing man than portrayed in the film. Interestingly, the said tutor was Patrick Blackett who’d  go on to win a Nobel Prize. Oppenheimer also had a humongous ego to boot despite having a voice like Mr. Rogers. And yes, he was associated with Communist politics in the 1930s as were both his wife and ex-girlfriend. His past association with leftist politics would later hurt him during the Red Scare as he opposed the Cold War arms race.)

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves didn’t get along. (Contrary to Fat Man and Little Boy, despite their personality differences, they got along fine because they both wanted the same thing. Groves even praised him on his work in the Manhattan Project saying, “I was reproachfully told that only a Nobel prize-winner or at least a somewhat older man would be able to exercise sufficient authority over the many ‘prima donnas’ concerned. But I stuck to Oppenheimer and his success proved that I was right. No one else could have done what that man achieved.” Groves also got along well with the other scientists save Hungarian Leo Szilard.)

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer came up with the idea of implosion. (It was actually fellow scientist Seth Neddermayer who proposed the theory and his formulation came gradually.)

The experiment with the two hemispheres of beryllium surrounding a core of plutonium and held apart with a screwdriver was called the “drop” experiment. (It was called “tickling the dragon’s tail” but it’s by the expy for Canadian physicist Louis Slotin from Fat Man and Little Boy. Yet, though he died from an experiment relating to radioactivity, his death didn’t provide any cautionary warning for Oppenheimer since it happened on May 30, 1946.)

General Leslie Groves was a fit man. (Actually he weighed between 250-300 pounds in contrast to Paul Newman’s fit figure in Fat Man and Little Boy. Oppenheimer by contrast, weighed 116 pounds during the Trinity Test.)

J. Robert Oppenheimer’s ex-girlfriend Dr. Jean Tatlock committed suicide on January 1945. (She killed herself in January of 1944. Interestingly, she was Oppenheimer’s first love and the first person he ever dated but she suffered from depression {he married his wife Kitty a year after he broke up with Jean}. Still, it’s said he had an affair with her during his time in the Manhattan Project while some say that he only spent the night with her once in mid-June of 1943 after he was picked as head of the laboratory in Los Alamos. It’s highly disputed. We could say that he certainly cared about her and may have felt guilty on breaking up with her despite knowing that she certainly wasn’t relationship material. Still, while we can’t really confirm whether Oppenheimer and Tatlock were romantically involved during his time at Los Alamos, he did have an extramarital affair but it was with Kitty when she was married to her third husband, a physician named Richard Harrison. And it wasn’t until Kitty found out she was pregnant to Oppenheimer when she divorced Harrison and Robert became her fourth
husband in November of 1940. Still, despite only dating two women throughout his entire earthly existence, Oppenheimer certainly had an interesting love life.)

General Leslie Groves was a recipient for the Good Conduct Ribbon. (To qualify for the Good Conduct Ribbon, a soldier must be an enlisted man for at least 36 months. Groves was a West Point graduate and thus ineligible.)

General Leslie Groves met Dr. Leo Szilard in his hotel bathroom while the latter was in a bathtub and the former was on the toilet. (They actually met at the Metallurgy Laboratory at the University of Chicago along with the rest of the scientists. They had an antagonistic relation and Groves tried to fire him.)

The Trinity explosion took 2-3 seconds. (It actually took 40 seconds.)

Kitty Oppenheimer was an adoring wife who thought her husband Robert was the greatest man who deserved anything he wants. (Oppenheimer would’ve probably wished his wife to be like this since he kind of thought he was God’s gift to humanity who deserved anything he wanted. Still, she was known to drink and make catty remarks about her husband.)

Miscellaneous:

America had the best artillery, tanks, tacticians, or generals in World War II. (America had the most money, the highest rate of productivity, and perhaps the most adaptive and self-reliant rank and file of all the fighting armies.)

USAAF bombing crews usually survived with no ill effects. (Since the USAAF bombed German targets by day, they had a monstrously high casualty rate in the bomber department. There’s a reason why the policy for USAAF airmen was “25 and out” for most of the war. Once most airmen completed 25 missions, their war was over but the average crewman only had a 1 in 4 chance of actually completing his tour of duty. Yet, as the war progressed, 25 got upped to 30 and then 35. The average bombing crew got shot down in its 20th mission. American bomber crews were known to be notoriously fatalistic, having determined that after reaching the half-way point on their tours of duty, they were living on borrowed time.)

“Little Brown Jug” was recorded after Glenn Miller’s death. (Actually contrary to The Glenn Miller Story, it was one of his first bonafide hits in 1939, but the movie makes it clear where he got it from.)

WWII was a universally supported one in the US. (The US only went into the war at around Pearl Harbor and even then there were Americans who opposed the war either because they were pacifists or Nazi sympathizers. And yes, World War II did have its share of draft dodgers even in the United States.)

A PT boat’s main function was “to harass the enemy and buy time for a navy that was still on the drawing boards.” (This is sort of accurate but as Washington lawyer and WWII veteran Leonard Nikoloric said, “Let me be honest. Motor torpedo boats were no good. You couldn’t get close to anything without being spotted. I suppose we [Squadron Three] attacked capital ships maybe forty times. I think we hit a bunch of them, but whether we sank anything is questionable. The PT brass were the greatest con artists of all time. They got everything they wanted-the cream of everything, especially the personnel. But the only thing the PTs were effective at was raising War Bonds.”)

The United States military was integrated at this time. (Actually it was still segregated and would be desegregated shortly after World War II. However, many of World War II movies were made after that time and with the assistance of the US military like The Glenn Miller Story. However, such errors could be forgiven since the war was fought by Americans of all races and creeds anyway even if they didn’t fight in integrated units.)

Female cadets were in attendance at West Point at this time. (West Point didn’t start admitting women until 1962.)

There were no gays in the US military during World War II. (Actually the US military effort during World War II was one of the reasons why the gay community became a more prominent force in later years. Sure there was a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy but the war effort brought so many people away from their homes and into contact with people they wouldn’t have met otherwise, sometimes these were people like them. Also, gay US WWII vets include Rock Hudson, Gore Vidal, and others.)

The US Navy made a petty fuss about shirts. (Actually Mister Roberts is right about the US Navy’s fuss about shirts but it wasn’t out of pettiness. The navy’s medical branch actually found that shirts provide protection against burns in case of explosion.)

US soldiers would leave their sweethearts behind who faithfully waited for them to return home, while their men didn’t mess around. (This wasn’t 100% the case since there were soldiers who did cheat on their sweethearts {sometimes wives} or sometimes abandoned them altogether. Not to mention, sometimes the sweethearts weren’t so devoted either as you understand the concept of a “Dear John” letter. Then there’s the fact that 1946 saw a jump of divorces in the United States.)

“Fouled up” was a common phrase of American soldiers during World War II. (Contrary to Saving Private Ryan, I believe the correct terminology is “fucked up.” For God’s sake, Spielberg, were you aiming for a PG-13 audience? I mean what’s wrong with including swearing in a rated R movie, especially if the main reason for it is violence.)

During combat jumps, US paratroopers jumped out of planes one by one with the jumpmaster commanding, “Go! Go!” (The jumpmaster was always the first off the plane while the rest of the paratroopers immediately followed behind him exiting the plane as fast as they could in order to land as close together as possible. I know the one by one combat jump is always done in movies but paratrooping has never worked that way since it would result in the whole unit being spread out in various locations. Try locating the rest of your unit using that method.)

American soldiers used “thunder” as a challenge word to identify friendlies while “flash” was used as a response. (Contrary to Saving Private Ryan, it’s the other way around with “flash” as the challenge word and “thunder” as the response. The reason why “thunder” was chosen as a response word for identifying friendlies was because of the “th” sound which is nonexistent in German. Thus, if a German were to say, “thunder” to “flash” he wouldn’t be able to hide his accent.)

The US Army had a 113th Tank Division during this time. (There was never a US 113th Tank Division in WWII.)

The Pentagon was completed by 1942. (It wasn’t completed until 1943.)

Women factory workers in the US home front were treated decently by their bosses. (While the average US serviceman was paid $54.65 weekly, factory women were paid $31.50. Also, if they were working among men, there’s a possibility that sexual harassment was frequent in some places. I mean there were no laws against it.)

World War II was the first time when housewives took up work outside the home as their husbands went to war. (Despite the fact that women were expected to be housewives throughout most of human history, this wasn’t always the case, even in America. Even before World War II, many women worked outside the home, especially in times under financial ruin like the Great Depression or death in the family like a spouse. If you’ve seen Mildred Pierce, you know what I mean. It was just that more women were doing the more important jobs that would be normally reserved for men. Not to mention, before that time, many didn’t really consider women’s work as anything of relative importance.)

“Little Orphan Annie” was a 1940s radio show sponsored by Ovaltine. (Ovaltine dropped “Little Orphan Annie” and switched to “Captain Midnight” in 1940. That year “Little Orphan Annie” would be sponsored by Quaker Puff Wheat. Announcer Pierre Andre would also go to “Captain Midnight” in early 1940 since audiences identified him too much with Ovaltine. This detail would help set A Christmas Story to 1939 since The Wizard of Oz came out that year and there’s no mention of Pearl Harbor.)

Bing Crosby’s “Merry Christmas” album was released at around 1940. (It wasn’t released until 1945 and reissued in 1947.)

The Red Ryder BB gun had a sundial and a compass among its features. (The screenwriter for A Christmas Story confused the Red Ryder with another kind of BB gun that had these features. Thus, guns had to specially made for the film. Yet, the Red Ryder BB gun was real but it doesn’t have a sundial and compass.)

Indiana schools were integrated in 1939. (They weren’t until 1949 yet there are three black kids in Ralphie’s class.)

Window air conditioners were widely available at this time in the US. (Contrary to Lost in Yonkers, while window air conditioners were sold as early as 1938, they weren’t mass produced until after World War II.)

US Navy seamen were experienced swimmers. (US Navy seamen weren’t required to know how to swim and many didn’t during this time.)

Movies during this time were seen in a wide screen format. (Not until the 1950s.)

All American aircraft carriers had angled decks. (Not in World War II they didn’t. But there aren’t that many straight decked carriers left as attempts to preserver the USS Enterprise {most decorated warship in US history} into a museum as a museum all ended in failure.)

June Carter was 10 in 1944. (By this time, she would’ve been 14 or 15.)

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4 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 70 – World War II: The American Home Front

  1. The photo shows Dwight Schultz, not Paul Newman.
    Isn’t it obvious to anyone who knows anything about race
    that General Groves was part black? Perhaps he should have
    been played by the mixed-race fellow who starred in Prison Break.

  2. Pingback: Mister Gay Europe 2014 Grand Coronation Night

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