Color of war makes history seem new
by Dale Short
Dec 26, 2013 | 625 views | 0 0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dale Short
Dale Short
When I was just a lad at Shanghi Baptist Church, over on the eastern county line between Dora and Flat Creek, one gospel song we sang a lot was “Wasted Years.” I learned later that it was written by Wally Fowler.

To say that the song had an impact on the older gentlemen in the pews at Shanghi is an understatement. I remember many of them wiping their eyes, some actually sobbing, when they recalled the times in their past when they were in thrall to gambling, or drinking, or some other addiction.

At this stage of my life, whenever a new year looms just ahead, I can look back on the past 12 months and consider it unwasted if I’ve come across at least one new idea that smacked my brain cells like a hammer upside of a Rubik’s cube, scattering all my old comfortable assumptions and clearing the way for a more accurate and more fruitful way of looking at the world.

This year, one of those hammer-smacks came from an unexpected source: late-night cable TV. A screen graphic on the Military Channel announced that I was about to see “World War II in Color,” and a whole host of alarm bells went off for me.

I still remember vividly when the computerized process named “colorization” made it possible to convert old black-and-white movies into color ones, and media mogul Ted Turner set about doing this to a huge library of classic American films. There was an outcry from movie purists, of which I guess I’m one, but apparently what led Turner to mostly dump that grand conversion plan was that, even with computer technology, converting a movie frame-by-frame was a very expensive process.

But, fake-colorizing World War II? The idea of tampering with the official record of perhaps the major turning point in American and world history got under my skin, and I was getting ready to write letters of protest to everybody responsible for this sacrilege when I did something, instead, that often proves helpful: I found out the facts.

Namely, a lot of World War II documentary footage was shot in color to begin with. By 1940, Hollywood was experimenting with new types of color film, and when it became clear the U.S. would enter the war, the government seized all the existing color film stocks for the war effort. Battlefield surgeons, in particular, found color invaluable for documenting their work and learning new techniques. And a color account of the Battle of Midway got theatrical release to promote the sale of War Bonds.

But the vast majority of the public never saw any of World War II in color; time and money constraints meant that the color originals were converted to black and white for distribution.

Researchers at Washington’s National Archives had no idea of how much original color film stock was scattered throughout the military’s dusty file cabinets — at the time, record-keeping was iffy, what with their being in the middle of a war and all.

Bottom line: I was a doubter, but now I’m a believer.

Watching color footage of those years instead of black-and-white doesn’t change the information conveyed, obviously. Plus, I’m old enough to be a connoisseur of monochrome images, and a lover of the smell of darkroom chemicals. In my early years working for newspapers, black-and-white photos were standard and color was so time-consuming and expensive it was saved for special occasions such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the kickoff of football season.

And yet. Watching TV and seeing color home movies of Mr. Hitler and Mr. Rommel and Mr. Churchill and Mr. MacArthur gives me goosebumps and makes the images seem as if they were put on film yesterday and not 60-plus years ago. The larger-than-life figures, whether doers of evil or good, seem somehow like members of my family. Real, in a way they’ve never seemed before.

I’m guessing that a part of this new realization comes from an afternoon I spent several weeks ago with World War II veteran Arnold Payne of Sayre, interviewing him for a feature story about Veterans’ Day. I had heard similar stories a hundred times before, but his was different.

His calm tone of voice, the warmth of his living room heater, the particular angle of the November sunset highlighting his face through the window — something about the combination of the medium and the message rewired my brain circuits permanently with new information. It’s as if, to borrow a metaphor from St. Paul, I had seen that period of American history “through a glass, darkly” before, and the smudge on the glass was cleared away. Same thing, in a different way, with the hours of newly released color footage of World War II that I look forward to seeing in the new year.

One realization I’ve already had: the phrase “Greatest Generation” is an understatement. I’m extremely fortunate not to have lived through those years, because I am not made of the stuff to have survived them. Whether home front or battle front, sacrifices of that magnitude would have broken me mentally, physically, or both. As history fulfilled itself, I would have been just a small, miserable bump in its road. On the bright side, knowledge is good. And now I’ve got 12 whole months for my gray matter to be smacked and realigned by a bunch of brand-new hammers. Bring ‘em on.

Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His books, columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM and is archived afterward on his website.