Memorial Day weekend is in full swing, coronavirus or not. Veterans’ groups will be still heading out with some politicians and civic-minded people to pay tribute to those veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice and gave up all of their tomorrows for our today.  

On Memorial Day in my former town the local cable-access television station will be airing periodically a series of short two-three minute interviews with various vets. That was my last official act as the local Veterans Council commander. Veterans from the VFW, American Legion, and the council recorded the interviews. Mine was conducted about three hours before our move away trip.  

One of our traditional pastimes on Memorial Day is to binge-watch military-themed films all day, but since we’re sharing our in-laws home for a few days, we are going to limit it to just five films today. A few years ago we posted our favorite war films for Memorial Day and this year we’ll add a few more. Since it is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II this year, we picked five of our WWII favorites. 

Saving Private Ryan (1998) starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore:

The film is an epic Steven Spielberg star-studded drama of the U.S. Army’s mission to find and evacuate one paratrooper (Damon) of the 101st Airborne whose brothers were all killed in action. Hanks, Sizemore, and their squad (Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, and Jeremy Davies) from the 2nd Ranger Battalion get tasked with finding Pvt. Ryan. The movie is set on the backdrop of the Normandy landings on D-Day.

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Loosely based on the story of the Niland brothers from New York, the film is considered one of the most powerful war films of all time. The riveting 27-minute opening sequence of the Rangers and the 29th Infantry Division soldiers landing on Omaha Beach became an instant classic film  sequence. Spielberg made the beach landing so realistic, that many actual veterans from Omaha Beach, were forced to leave the theaters as it brought back too many vivid memories. 

Spielberg spared no expense for the opening scene. He used over 1000 extras to storm the beaches of Normandy (filmed in Ireland) with water so cold, many of the actors had to wear wet suits beneath their uniforms. They also used more than 20 men with missing limbs who had thier prosthetic limbs blown off for the purposes of lending graphic realism to the film. 

Twelve O’clock High (1949) starring Gregory Peck, Dean Jagger, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe: 

Another outstanding World War II drama centered around the early losses amongst the B-17 bomber crews flying daylight missions over Germany and occupied France during 1942. The 918th Bomb Group has a reputation as the “hard-luck group.” After a particularly disastrous mission, a thinly veiled Schweinfurt raid reference, group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Merrill) has become too emotionally attached to his unit and is relieved of command. General Frank Savage (Peck) is asked to take over.

Savage is modeled on the actual Colonel Frank Armstrong who commanded the 306th Bomb Group. Coincidentally, the 306th had the first B-17 crew, (Hell’s Angels, commanded by Irl Baldwin that completed 25 missions successfully.)

Savage molds the 918th, after much pushback from the men, into a topflight combat air command. Hugh Marlowe is outstanding as is Peck as LTC Ben Gately, a pilot who was initially punished by Savage and given all the deadbeats in the group (his plane was called the Leper Colony). He later redeems himself by continuing to fly while having fractured vertebrae. Dean Jagger is also as solid as always playing Major Harry Stovall.

Stalag 17, (1953) starring William Holden in an Oscar-winning role, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Neville Brand, Harvey Lembeck, Peter Graves, and Otto Preminger:

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Billy Wilder directed this excellent comedy-drama of a POW camp in Germany. Luftstalag 17 is a POW camp for Americans.

The most hated of all the POWs is a cynic hustler named Sefton (Holden), who openly trades with the Germans and has a ton of luxury items while most of the men are hungry and wearing rags. 

When two prisoners are shot while escaping, the other POWs blame Sefton for being a rat. The Americans are convinced that there is a turncoat in their midst and Sefton is the easiest and most logical target — except, he knows who the actual turncoat is. 

Robert Straus and Harvey Lembeck provide much of the comic relief as “Animal” and Harry Shapiro, two POWs who keep everyone else as light as can be depending on their circumstances. “Animal” is obsessed with Betty Grable and the Christmas Day drunken interaction with Shapiro is hilarious. 

Tora, Tora, Tora (1970), starring an all-star cast of American and Japanese actors:

This was a tremendous war film that shows the leadup to the disastrous events at Pearl Harbor. It is shown from both the American and Japanese perspectives. With war drums beating, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto must plan for a sneak attack on the U.S., a country he knows well, having been to college there American fleet. 

Yamamoto understands that a protracted war with America is a losing situation since the U.S.’s industrial might will win out in the end. He knows that Japan must strike a crippling blow to the U.S. and therefore tries to plan a devastating attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. 

The Americans have broken the Japanese diplomatic codes and are trying to piece together what the Japanese intentions are. The American intelligence officers try, unsuccessfully, to get the American defense chiefs to alert the Pearl Harbor defenses in time. The Japanese launch their attack early on the morning of December 7, 1941. However, their declaration of war, which was supposed to be delivered to the Americans 30 minutes before the attack began, was garbled and the translation time-consuming. It wasn’t delivered until the attack was already over. 

Although the Japanese achieved total surprise, the American aircraft carriers, the prime targets of the attack, were already out to sea. While seven battleships were either sunk or heavily damaged, it wasn’t the death blow that Yamamoto planned on — or needed. 

The film ends with Yamamoto’s prophetic lament. He tells his staff that nothing would infuriate the U.S. more and concludes: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Kelly’s Heroes (1970) starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O’Connor, and Don Rickles:

Another comedy/drama about World War II, Kelly (Eastwood) captures a German officer who it turns out was transporting stolen gold from France back to Germany.

Kelly interrogates the German and learns that there is a cache of 14,000 gold bars, worth $16 million (over $230 million today), stored in a bank vault 30 miles behind enemy lines in the town of Clermont. 

Kelly assembles an eclectic mix of characters from the 35th Infantry Division to go on a raid far behind enemy lines and hit the bank to steal the gold, not for the American army, but for themselves.

“Crapgame” (Rickles) is the hustler, who gets all of the equipment needed, while Oddball, (Sutherland) is a long-haired spaced-out tank commander who steals every scene he’s in. 

General Colt (O’Connor) is somewhat of a buffoon who believes that the heist is a breakthrough of his forces and rushes to catch up with the troops. 

When the group gets to the town, three German Tiger tanks hold the bank and the ensuing firefight turns ugly and violent. With a standoff that threatens to blow the caper, Crapgame tells Kelly to make a deal with the German tank commander saying, “Maybe he’s a Republican.”

I hope everyone is safe and healthy today… Enjoy.