At the Movies: The Darkest Hour Produces the Greatest Generation

By Sue Wallace
May 27, 2018

A couple of months ago I was telling Jill about my experiences when I gave a presentation to U.S. History classes at Citrus Valley about my Dad’s experiences in WWII.  It was a very positive experience. The students for once were attentive and many at the end of each period stopped to thank me for sharing Dad’s story with them. Jill told me she was getting ready to do a series of sermons based on movies and wanted to know if I would be interested in giving one of them.  We decided that the recently released film, Darkest Hour, would be a good basis for the sermon.  As a retired U.S. History teacher I couldn’t pass up a topic that I dearly loved to teach WWII.  Let me give you a little background on the history behind the movie. Hitler had invaded France in 1940.  The British had come to their aid but had not been able to hold back the tide of the German advance. German forces at the port city of Dunkirk on the English Channel had surrounded British and French troops.  If something wasn’t done quickly to evacuate them, they would face being overrun by the Germans and be forced to surrender. In the middle of all of this, Great Britain was facing a political crisis at home. Members of Parliament had lost confidence in the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who had tried unsuccessfully to appease Hitler at the Munich Conference.  However, Chamberlain still had enough influence to insist whoever was chosen should be someone all three political parties would be willing to support. The choice was Winston Churchill. Within days of becoming Prime Minister, Churchill had to face one of his most turbulent and defining decisions: either exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or continuing the fight.  Even though Churchill was opposed to a peace settlement which would have meant surrendering most of Europe to Hitler’s control, he had to consider a settlement as a possibility. After all Great Britain was facing a real threat of German invasion. In the scene I am about to show you, Churchill is on his way to Parliament to announce his decision to his cabinet. He leaves his chauffeur driven car to take The Tube to seek advice from the British citizens on what he should do.  Now bear in mind this scene is not historically accurate in that there is no evidence that Churchill took The Tube that day, but to me this scene is indicative of the attitude the British and later the American people had concerning what had to be done to face the challenge that lay ahead.

The British were not the only ones who felt they were doing what needed to be done to stop the evil that was threatening world domination.  Tom Brokaw, the television newscaster, has called the generation that lived through the Great Depression and WWII, The Greatest Generation. They faced up to adversity and came through it with faith and courage to provide the next generation with the opportunity to live in a free world.  I’m going to take some personal liberty here and give you a glimpse of this generation through the story of my parents.

Both Mom and Dad were raised on farms in northern Oklahoma and times were tough during the Great Depression.  Dad had to drop out of high school for a year to help out the family financially. He was only able to return to high school and graduate because an older sister who had finished two years of normal school (training for teachers in those days) began teaching at a one-room schoolhouse close to home.  The money she was earning allowed Dad to return to high school and finish. That’s why Mom and Dad graduated high school together and had become high school sweethearts. After graduation Mom was able to go on to two years of college and Dad Joined the CCC. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a program of the New Deal that provided conservation jobs for unmarried young men.  Dad was sent to Colorado to help build firebreaks in the national forests there. The CCC was set up very much like being inducted into the military. You served for 6 months to two years and earned $30 a month plus room and board. Most of the $30 was sent home to the enrollee’s family. Dad’s group finished their service in the CCC in the fall of 1936 and came back to Oklahoma from Colorado by train.  They arrived at the train station in Colorado Springs and were there several hours waiting for the train. Dad said it was late October, cold and snowing heavily and he remembers railroad guards periodically sweeping through the warm station forcing out some who were homeless who had sought shelter there. Times were tough.

When Dad returned, he and Mom decided to elope.  They were married in November of 1936 in the middle of the Great Depression and started life together under trying economic times.  They moved to Ponca City where Dad was lucky and got a job working for a dairy company delivering milk to grocery stores. They struggled financially the first couple of years but when Dad received a raise they decided to begin a family.  My brother was born in 1938. But Dad wanted a better life for his son and began to look for a new job that paid more money. His day started at 4:00 a.m. and when he’d got off around 2:00 p.m., he and a friend would walk to the local oil refinery owned by Continental Oil Company (Conoco, today) and stand in line for a couple of hours hoping for an opening there.  It finally paid off and Dad was hired in 1940 to work at that oil refinery. Now their lives were just beginning to see a brighter future.

Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the U.S. entered the war.  All men between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to sign up for the draft. Because he was married with one child, Dad’s draft number was fairly high.  But by the summer of 1943 it was obvious to him that his draft number would soon be called and he chose to volunteer so he could join the Army Air Corps. So he was separated from his family as he was sent off to basic training and then flight training where he was trained as a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber.  He was sent overseas in August of 1944 to Deenethorpe Air Base in England. While Dad was overseas Mom went to work at the refinery, as did many of the other wives, to take their husband’s places there while they were off fighting the war. I love the picture of Mom in her overalls and lunch pail and I call it Ruby the Riveter.  

Fortunately my mother saved all of Dad’s letters he wrote while serving overseas.  They are a fascinating record of the trials and tribulations that he and Mom went through as they were separated.  My brother started to school that fall and Dad wrote in his letters about how sad he was not to be there on Max’s first day of school.  

Between the end Aug. of 1944 and the end of February 1945 Dad flew 35 missions – almost all of them were targets in Germany.  He served on two different planes, Lady Luck and Diana Queen of the Chase.  You can see Dad with his crew of Diana Queen of the Chase.  He’s on the back row, third from the left. In October, Lady Luck was so badly damaged on one of their missions that they almost didn’t make it back to base.  Each time they flew a mission, there was a good chance they would not return.

There were several things that kept Dad going during this dark time.  One was a British family that sort of adopted him or he adopted them. They had a little boy about my brother’s age and a baby girl.  Whenever Dad could get leave he would visit the family, always taking food from the base to help them out. He had Mom send him several pair of little boys’ pants because he noticed how worn out the little boys clothes were.  Mom sent along extra material to make dresses for the little girl, too. He wrote of the hardships the British family was facing with severe rationing.

He also had his faith to fall back on.  Dad had never been baptized before he left for the war.  His family had attended a small Disciples of Christ church near their farm but he had never taken that step to be baptized.  He did that when he was in England. He attended church services on base whenever he could. He told me several times that the 23rd Psalm was his favorite as he always recited it before he took off to fly each mission.  When he came home and went to join the church Mom had joined when he was overseas, they wanted him to be baptized again because he had been sprinkled and not immersed in England.  He felt his baptism there was such a moving experience for him, he refused and even though he became actively involved in the church with Mom he never actually joined until the late 1970’s when the church changed its policies.  His faith was always an important part of his life.

Dad said he felt it was his duty to serve to help us survive as a free people but what he did affected him for the rest of his life.  He said when he arrived back in the U.S. he was sent to Fort Chaffey in Arkansas to be mustered out of the service. But when he and about 6 or 7 others arrived there, they discovered their paperwork was stuck back in New York City.  So he was there for about 10 days until it caught up. He said they didn’t give them jobs to do at the fort because they knew they would be released soon. So everyday they would go to the mess hall to eat breakfast and then sit around and drink coffee for a couple of hours and visit with each other.  He said in the mess hall they were being served by German prisoners of war. The rule was the prisoners were not to talk to the soldiers. But one day, everyone at his table had left and he was sitting there alone when a German prisoner approached him. The prisoner told Dad he had overheard him talking to his friends and knew that he had flown bombing missions over Germany.  Dad said he told him, “Yes”, he had. The prisoner then wanted to know if he had ever flown any missions over Hamburg, Germany. Dad said I knew we had at least twice but told the prisoner that he couldn’t reveal any of their targets. The prisoner said “I understand.” but then went on to explain that he was from Hamburg. He said he had been a prisoner for about 6 months and in the first 3 months had gotten letters from his wife and children but had not heard from them in 3 months.  He was just wondering if they were still alive. Dad said that hit him really hard. He said this man was no different from me even though he was an enemy. He said I worried about your Mom and your brother when I was overseas even though I knew they were safe here at home but this man had to worry about whether his family was alive or not. He said I knew our targets were military targets but there were times when they missed the target and the bombs fell on civilian population. He said we tried not to think about that but what that prisoner said stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Dad faced even more adversity when he returned.  As a result of the high altitude flying, he developed a severe hearing loss.  He lost 100% of his hearing in one ear and about 90% in the other ear. He couldn’t hear anything without a hearing aid but did teach himself how to read lips.  Despite this severe handicap he went back to work at the refinery and lived a full life until he passed from life to life in 1992. Mom passed from life to life in 2011.  It was their strong belief in God and His justice that led me to this church in 2012. I still miss them everyday.

Mom and Dad’s story is typical of the Greatest Generation.  As you saw in the clip from the film, it was the British people who urged their leaders to continue to fight and not give up.  It was the American people here at home who did everything they could to support the war effort. Men went off to serve in the armed forces and women went to work in the factories and refineries to keep the nation producing what was needed for their survival.  Those who survived returned and started rebuilding their lives all over again. They got married, if they hadn’t been before the war, had children, lots of children, the Baby Boom generation. I’m part of that generation. Dad came home in May of 1945 and I was born in September of 1946.

Not many of Mom and Dad’s generation are still alive.  On this Memorial Day we need to remember that generation and what they sacrificed for us.  They held fast to their faith and it got them through some very difficult times. Yes, not everyone made it.  The loss of life was staggering on both sides. For those who survived, it left scars physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  But for people like my parents who had a strong faith in God, they adjusted and moved forward. We need to bear that in mind as we face difficult roads ahead.  We may have enemies but they are God’s children, too. We need to remember that and know they have families just like we do.

Too often we don’t pay attention to our history and repeat the mistakes of the past.  In this case we need to look at the history of the Greatest Generation to show us how we can best handle any situation that we may face now or in the future. The principles, faith and courage they used to face their hardships will serve us well in the future.  Truth, justice, and God’s love can see us through anything as we face our own adversities in life. As Jill would say, “Amen?”