When Cynthia Rush contacted me about her uncle’s World War II–era photo album, I admit I heaved a sigh. I knew that if it was anything short of remarkable, I would have to simply suggest she treasure it, and tell her thanks but no thanks. Attics across America are still chock full of such records, created by amateur photographers who armed themselves with the new Brownie and other portable cameras and began to catalog their lives during the ’30s and ’40s. As the nation mobilized for war, parents proudly snapped images of their young men and women before they headed to basic training or shipped out.
I have such an album, in which my grandmother faithfully recorded her two sons’ childhoods and their enlistment. In it, as in many wartime albums, a photographic gap persists between the time the soldiers left home and their return. There is only one photo of my father in basic training, and a couple of him in 1943, home on leave in Scobey, Montana, mugging in his new uniform, a boy soldier with all the world at his feet. The next photos in the album, after his return from the Battle of the Bulge, feature a pain-wizened, unsmiling man with a crooked arm and a lifeless left hand. His transformation—his combat experience and the nearly two years of training that preceded it—went unrecorded.
Cynthia Rush’s album was a chance to get a sense of some of what went on during that gap—and I’m so grateful she insisted I look at it. The album is extraordinary. It shows her uncle, Lt. John O. Rush, earning his wings at the Pensacola Naval Air Station from 1936 to 1941, and it appears that he did so with a sketchbook, a box camera, and a wry wit. Even as clouds of war gathered over Europe, Rush and his fellow cadets were learning to shoot and fly and salute, and whether in the cockpit, the hangar, or on the tarmac, he managed to capture tantalizing glimpses of the military and family history that so many of us have been denied. See for yourself in “Before the Storm” on page 54. It’s an important reminder that, as World War II veterans pass away at the rate of 850 a day, we must continue to take stock of those men and women who answered the call, and to diligently record, preserve, and cherish their contributions.
As always, there is plenty more as MHQ does its part to fill history’s gaps, including a provocative take on the Six-Day War, a fascinating story of two female Luftwaffe test pilots, and a new theory about the disintegration of Napoleon’s empire. Enjoy.