Movie Review: Midway

It was about 9:40pm when I approached my wife. I had just woken up from a 90 minute nap (which happens when your 2-year-old daughter demands that you lie down near her in the adult-sized daybed as she is trying to sleep), so I was already groggy when I told her that I was going to attend a 10:25 showing of Midway that night. “OK.,” she chuckled.

“I’m doing it for the blog!” I maintained, perhaps a bit too insistently.

She laughed again. “Sure.”

I had already asked her a few days earlier if she would want to see it with me, and based on the conversation that followed it seemed that neither one of us expected a whole lot. After all, Roland Emmerich isn’t exactly known for his artistic nuance. Watching aliens blow up major cities in Independence Day is one thing, but trusting him with a war epic and perhaps the single most important naval battle in American history? That’s a tall order for anyone. Nevertheless, I wanted to see how the guy who blew up a scale model of the White House with a spaceship would treat four ill-fated Japanese carriers.

Image result for midway theater poster

For starters – and perhaps this comes as a disappointment to some of you – I cannot comment too readily on the film’s historical accuracy. There are two main reasons for this. First, my “expertise” does not encompass the Battle of Midway, and most of what I know comes from general descriptions of the battle. Secondly, I decided to suspend disbelief early on, once I realized that the Japanese torpedo bombers attacking Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor (the December 7th attack is depicted within the first five minutes of the movie) were moving in from the southwest, and not from the northwest and due north. I also noticed that there were no ships anchored where the Chew and the Allen were supposed to be located – an omission that rankled me a bit (and which, understandably, would have upset my grandfather). Once the film moved past the events of December 7th and into 1942, I figured that the movie would be more easily digestible if I watched it as it was probably intended to be seen: as a “based on a true story” Emmerich disaster flick, and not as a documentary.

When seen on its own merits, Midway holds up fairly well as a war movie. For one, Emmerich’s ensemble cast of characters (including Admiral Chester Nimitz, Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Lt. Commander Richard Best, and Rear Admiral Edwin Layton) are all compelling in their own right and could easily inspire their own biopics. As for the plot, Emmerich is smart to begin the movie with the attack on Pearl Harbor and to end it with Midway. While I don’t think the script properly conveys just how poorly the war effort had been going for the United States throughout the first half of 1942, in general it does a good job of narrating the sequence of events that span the United States military’s failure to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor with its inspired and fortuitous counterstroke at Midway.

More importantly, I think Emmerich recognized a problem that many war movies about air raids have, which is that they often occurred so quickly that it would be impossible to make a movie about them without including lots of filler. This issue has plagued film reenactments of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which in real time lasted less than two hours from start to finish. Tora! Tora! Tora! tried to solve this problem by devoting most of its screen time to the events leading up to the attack, while Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) focused primarily on a love triangle. Neither film successfully balances the intensity of the attack with the relative quiet of the days, weeks, and months preceding it. In Midway, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor provides exposition, not climax, while the namesake battle begins at the start of the screenplay’s third act. This was a clever way to frame the film around its comparatively short action sequences.

That being said, the dialogue could use a lot of work. Most of the characters speak like, well, the people in Independence Day. There are lots of New Jersey accents, platitudes about duty and winning and what not, and an endless stream of tropes (like references by Japanese commanders to being ordered to stand “like samurai.”) The characters just don’t seem to talk like normal people. In fact, I’m positive that Admiral Halsey spent a lot more time complaining about his shingles than he let on in the film.

Also, as other reviewers have stated, the film’s use of CGI is a bit overwhelming. It is one thing to depict a ship blowing up; it is another thing entirely to have Best fly his bomber through the explosion caused by one of his own bombs. These whiz-bang moments don’t really add much to the drama, but instead muddle the narrative with endless special effects distractions. Perhaps this is where Emmerich’s resume becomes a liability. History, when told truthfully and with an ear for good storytelling, does not need disaster filmmaking to engage the audience’s interest.

Aside from these concerns, however, the movie overall was pretty good. While it does not compare to more inspired war films in recent years (like the masterful Dunkirk), it is a classic action war movie. I enjoyed it, and if you plan on seeing it, I would definitely recommend checking it out at the theater. Even if you can only make it to the 10:25pm showing, and you have to grab a cup of coffee first to get through it.

This Weekend: Going to St. Louis

On Thursday morning we are going to fly to Saint Louis for a few days, partly to make up for me not bringing our daughter there over the summer due to my health issues, and partly because autumn is probably the best (read: least miserable) time to visit Missouri. I say this with all the love in the world, but, between the freezing cold temperatures in the winter, the summer humidity, and the insane pollen counts in the spring, Saint Louis doesn’t leave many options for nice, comfortable, allergy-free weather.

At any rate, I am looking forward to visiting with family, eating toasted ravioli, and getting some work done on this project. Specifically, on Friday I will visit the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in northern St. Louis County. This is where you would want to go to get the personnel records for anyone who served in the Armed Forces during World War II. In fact, it is as far as I know the ONLY place to go – this is the federal repository for these records. I’m bringing with me a short list of people to look up, including grandpa (of course), my grandmother (who worked for the government during the war), and several of my grandpa’s shipmates.

The NPRC campus in St. Louis, Missouri

This will be my first visit to the NPRC, but a great deal of my horse theft research comes from the National Archives headquarters in Washington D.C. Although the security protocols for getting in and out can be intimidating at first (and the guards are seldom enthusiastic when explaining it for the hundredth time each day), the National Archives is on the whole a fantastic place to conduct historical research. They employ a small army of technicians whose job it is to help you find precisely what you are looking for, and unlike in many archival reading rooms researchers are allowed to use cameras to photograph and scan their documents (I did this liberally – rather than relocate to D.C. for a few months and read everything on site I photoscanned several thousand pages of reports and correspondence for my book and reviewed the material at home on an iPad).

I plan on posting a quick update this Friday on what I find in my grandpa’s service record, and if there are any interesting images or photographs inside I may include them here as well (note: most National Archives materials are publicly owned and thus public domain for copyright purposes). In the meantime, if you or someone you know is interested in looking up a World War II veteran’s record, please check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center.

If you don’t live in or plan on visiting St. Louis any time soon, you can ask the NPRC to look it up for you and send you the file directly (for a fee, of course). But some federal privacy law caveats apply: only veterans who died or were discharged prior to 1957 can be looked up without having to obtain special permission from the service-member or their next of kin, and medical records are explicitly excluded from these personnel files. Also, having the service number handy would be enormously helpful when locating the veteran’s file. However, since it was a unique identifier the military used it in a lot of different records, which makes finding it fairly easy. I found all the relevant service numbers using Ancestry.com. If you enter your relative’s full name, birth date, and hometown, you should have no problem finding a muster log or some other document that contains their service number.

Besides that, I intend to take a little tour of my grandpa’s old neighborhood (Carondolet) and hope that inspiration strikes hard enough for me to hole up somewhere for a couple of hours and write. After all, this is where grandpa’s story begins, and it is also where the first chapter of my book will take place.

Eiler Street in St. Louis. This is where Elmer lived prior to enlisting in the Navy Reserve.

It’s fun to stay at the Honolulu YMCA

For sailors and soldiers stationed on Oahu, the local YMCA offered a comfortable home base away from, well . . . base.

Grandpa’s box of war documents did not just contain letters. Hidden among the many other pieces of ephemera, I found a well-worn YMCA map and brochure. According to his letters Elmer visited the facility often, and the document lists many potential reasons for why he and others frequented the place: “The popular ‘Navy Y’ [is] the club, meeting place, and recreation center for thousands of men from the [Navy] Yard and the ships afloat.” The Y featured “a 700-seat auditorium” with “four free shows and three paid programs . . . [a] week,” as well as a “cool, spacious lobby with many table and small games.” It also contained “quiet writing and study rooms,” which is what Elmer must have been utilizing when penning his March 8th, 1941 letter. “The fellas” he came to town with that day “went on to a show,” he wrote, “but I decided to write you and Pat here at the ‘Y.'”

The Y provided essential services as well, including a small bank, a money order wire counter, two chapels, and even a “curio shop” for “the economical purchase of souvenirs and gifts.” Getting there was easy as well, and no hitchhiking was necessary: a one-way bus ticket from Navy Yard to the Y was 20 cents, and a taxi (which could be divvied up) cost a quarter. The brochure even contained a complete map of the island of Oahu, showing the locations of the various bases, attractions, and even what beaches were safe for swimming.

In any event, the YMCA was a cheap, pleasant place to spend one’s liberty, and Elmer frequently found himself there when in town.

What I’m Reading: Brothers Down

One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona by [Borneman, Walter R.]

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.

But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.

The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.

This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.

Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.

Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!

Dollars and Cents

I’m running behind on my research and writing during the past couple of weeks. Everyone in our house but the dog has been sick for much of that time, and unfortunately the dog is not able to cook us food or clean the house. We’re all on the mend and feeling much better, but needless to say it’s been a drag.

Eddie: “Sorry, I don’t know how to use the stove. Also that would be a very bad idea.”

As I start building up some more material to write about (currently going through the April 1941 letters), I’ll post a couple of quick blog posts about interesting topics that may not necessarily justify a longer discussion.

For example . . . think about two things most people possess today: food and photographs. Food is expensive, while photographs, thanks to smart phones, are virtually free. In fact, we now live in the age of the “food selfie,”
in which folks order exotic or elaborate meals while traveling, and then upload pictures of the spread and of themselves to social media.

In 1941, however, those price points were reversed . . . on March 8th Elmer described a meal that he had purchased in Honolulu to his parents, which included the following fare:

  • Pineapple cocktail
  • Pork chops
  • French-fried potatoes
  • Lima Beans
  • Apple pie and ice cream

How much did all that sumptuous food cost? 45 cents!

However, Elmer’s parents requested that he send a photo of himself back to Saint Louis. They wanted to see for themselves how he was doing. Since Instagram would not be invented for another 75 years or so, Elmer had to go into town and order portrait photographs. This required an appointment with a photographer (booked in advance), plus about two weeks for development.

He ordered six 4×3″ pictures. The cost? Four dollars.

That’s a lot of pork chops and ice cream.

If you could buy any meal you wanted for less than a dollar, what would it be? Please leave a comment and let us know!

Image result for 1940s diner public domain

Things to “Chew” on: Daily ice cream and the process of becoming a “salty sailor”

By early March 1941, Elmer was beginning to get acclimated to his new surroundings: the Chew, Pearl Harbor, the Neutrality Zone, Honolulu, and Waikiki Beach. “I feel fine,” he wrote in a letter to his brother Bud and his family, “[and I] really have a swell sun tan.”

Although still on mess duty, Grandpa did not mind starting his Naval career in the Chew’s kitchen. “I am glad I got mess cook first,” he reported to his parents. “It will be over soon[,] then I can dive right in and learn all about running this destroyer. The other fellows will all have to take their mess cook duty in turn. Every man in the Navy has [to do it.]” Mess duty had its advantages as well. “The ‘chow’ is plenty good, too. You can eat as much as you want. Ice cream every day,” he wrote on January 25th. It was also financially lucrative, with mess cooks earning an extra $5 a month in pay plus whatever was in the mess tip jar. Elmer sent his extra earnings home each month. On March 1st, he informed his parents that he was sending them $20, but that they should not worry about him keeping enough for himself. Between that and the $6 he had won in a card game the past week, Elmer was flush with walking around money (“I am a careful gambler,” he wrote reassuringly).

Outside of the mess kitchen, Elmer was also getting to know the wider world on and beyond the base. On March 1st Elmer described the overall organization of the 80th Destroyer Division, which was made up of the Chew, the Schely, the Allen, and the Ward. The four ships shared patrol duties through the Hawai’ian neutrality zone, which included searching for hostile ships and submarines, performing battle drills, and ensuring the safety of Pearl Harbor and its many inhabitants. He told his parents that they would soon embark on a ten day patrol cruise and that they shouldn’t expect any letters during that time. With all of the patrolling, “[I am] getting to be a salty sailor.”

Despite the cruises, Elmer was also getting to know and enjoy Oahu. In Honolulu he frequented the YMCA and enjoyed going to the movies, while at Waikiki he and his pals “really had a swell time. Swimming and surf boat riding. Boy is that the life! We all had a good time.” Although the beach was a ways away from town, he had no problems hitchhiking. “It is easy to catch a ride. A sailor in uniform gets a ride very easy.”

In any case, Elmer’s mess duty was scheduled to end on April 1st, and a brand new set of experiences would begin. He would then have a little over eight months to learn as much as he could about “running this destroyer” before he, his shipmates, and the rest of the country found themselves smack dab in the middle of a war.

Gold Rushes and Golden Leaves

One of the things I miss the most about growing up in Missouri is the fall colors, which light up the bluffs along the rivers with slashes of orange, red, yellow, and brown. When I was a kid, my family and I would travel up the Great River Road from St. Louis, drive to Calhoun County, and buy apple cider from one of the many roadside stands lining the strip of land between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers before taking the Golden Eagle Ferry back. Good times.

After nine years of living in Los Angeles, I became disenchanted with the California fall. I’d find any excuse I could to travel east during the autumn. Sometimes we would go up to Big Bear or even Mammoth Lakes, but it just was not the same. The closest I ever felt like I came to experiencing a real autumn was when I’d go up to Sacramento to visit family for Thanksgiving.

Now that I’ve lived in the Sacramento area for a couple of years now, I have to say . . . the fall up here is spectacular. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it could be a destination fall. Crowds of leaf-peepers back east got you down? Come out to Northern California, where we have all the trappings of fall, including that nice cool autumn breeze, but without the fuss. Check out Apple Hill, near Placerville, with its line of apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and food stands. Or take a drive through Sacramento itself in November, which is sometimes called the “City of Trees,” and enjoy the juxtaposition of color-changing maples against pines, redwoods, and even palm trees. It’s a fascinating sight.

But since this is ostensibly a history blog, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the historical destinations that await travelers here. Autumn is probably the best time of the year to visit one of our local Gold Rush history attractions. Apart from the changing colors, it is not brutally hot (as summers tend to be), nor will you need snow chains for your vehicle.

Here are some places you can visit:

The Gold Rush Museum – Auburn: This is a one-stop shop for all things related to Gold Rush history. Located in historic Auburn, this museum is a fantastic place to get acquainted with one of the most important events in North American history.

Firehouse #1 Museum – Nevada City: After you are done taking in the sights in Auburn, take a picturesque drive up Highway 49 towards Grass Valley and Nevada City. Once you get there, this museum offers both a fascinating look at the region’s history as well as a beautiful view of the surrounding treescape.

Donner Memorial State Park – Truckee: No visit to the Sierra would be complete without a stop at Donner Pass and a visit to the place where the ill-fated Donner Party camped in 1846. Be sure to pack a lunch . . .

National Automobile Museum – Reno: If you make it to the other side of the California-Nevada state line, this museum in Reno is not to be missed. Even though this has little to do with the Gold Rush, it does at least give you a sense of what some of the most successful gold miners might have spent their money on in later years . . .