By Randy Ark
I couldn’t wait for the new HBO mini-series The Pacific to begin. After having viewed Band of Brothers, the HBO mini-series that followed Easy Company of the 506th PIR through WWII in Europe, I was more than ready for the Pacific theater. While the scenery and the combat footage were graphically and realistically portrayed, the language and the sex talk left me a little unsettled. As a veteran of Vietnam, I can personally atest to the use of profanity during my tour there, especially the use of the f-word. This fact is not something I brag about, it was simply the lingua franca of that war.
While viewing this mini-series for the ten weeks that it aired, I could not help but think of the WWII veterans watching these programs with their children and/or grandchildren, and sitting uneasily in their chairs watching the graphic love-making scenes in Australia or listening to the profanity, especially the use of the f-word, over and over and over again. I just could not imagine my father, or any of the WWII veterans that I have come to know personally, speaking that way, that often. Was Hollywood interjecting their modern-day vernacular into the speech of post-depression era servicemen and women?
I dropped in on a good friend of mine one day at his office here in Springfield. Earl Morse is the founder of Honor Flight, and has been a friend of mine for a few years now. I knew that he had recently taken some WWII Pacific veterans to Washington D.C. by invitation, where they met Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for a special viewing of The Pacific. Our conversation led to the HBO mini-series and my admitted reservations about the language, etc. Earl looked at me and said, “Now that’s interesting, because when we all came out of the viewing, I asked the veterans what they thought about what they had seen in the video.” Earl proceeded to tell me that all the men said that the scenery and the combat scenes were pretty much as they remembered them, but that when it came to the language they said, “…but we didn’t talk like that.” Earl went on to tell me that some of the veterans were a bit upset with the way they were portrayed using that kind of language and stated to him, “We were mostly just farm boys coming out of the depression, and we never used the f-word like that and we NEVER disrespected women by using bad language around them.”
I was glad to hear what Earl Morse had told me, but it aroused my curiosity even more, so I took it upon myself to send out emails and to personally ask veterans and folks who knew veterans or had close family members who were veterans, if they had any thoughts on the language of that generation. Following are some of the replies I received:
“You know, this will be interesting to see what you find out. I’ll bet it wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. I’m sure there were a few who used it, like street kids from the Bronx or someplace like that. But I’ll bet it was few and far between.”
“Unfortunately in the Gulf War the term was frequently used. Though my grandfather was in WWII, he passed away before I had the appreciation of his service, so I never really asked him much about his experiences.”
Gulf War veteran
“I can tell you that my dad served in the Pacific with the 147th Regiment from Ohio (i.e. with the Marines) at some of the places on the show, and he never used the “F” word. He did use the word “sh–” on occasion. In fact, I never heard the “F” word from either parent ever or until watching movies later. I think it was a phenomenon of the 70’s or late 60’s if you guys used it in Nam. I didn’t cross the pond as I graduated from pilot and then instructor pilot training as the war was ending. We (pilots) didn’t use it either but “sh–” in a sense, was popular in a rare instance. (more popular still was something we learned from Korean vets: ‘we are in deep kimshe.’) I always thought the “F” word was inappropriate and am absolutely sure that is the case with my dad. My guess is that this is a modern version of WWII by VN and later writers and producers. These WWII folks survived the great depression and fought a world war and kept their integrity and even speech intact.
I just asked my wife Jenny about her dad. He was a tank commander in Europe under Abrams. She never ever heard him use that language as well and actually never heard him cuss other than a very occasional “sh–” and “damn.” Same with my dad. I think the use of the “f’ word seems to have started with the Vietnam era.”
Vietnam era fighter pilot trainer
“Dad just passed away last week. We had a military service for him, it was beautiful. Even before he gave his life to the Lord when he was in his early 50’s, Dad used very few “unchristian” words. My dad would have been very upset if he would have heard the “f” word. That is just the way he was. He only told war stories later in life. I think he was of a generation that thought serving was their duty. You serve and you come home, period. I think, as a whole, we have become more filthy-mouthed and it starts very young.”
Daughter of a WWII vet
“The f-word was used, but not a whole lot, because our Platoon Officers and NCO’s would reprimand those who used it, and they knew that they could get extra duty for using foul language.”
S/Sgt. Charles Benning
World war II veteran
“I cannot remember anyone during the Korean conflict talking that way, as far as I remember that kind of language was more frequent during the Vietnam conflict during the hippie days and when everything was “f this and f that. Oh don’t get me wrong, we used some curse words once in awhile, but mostly we would say something like sh–, but as far as the f-word no. If they did, it was under their breath.
Auggie Adrian Auckerman
Korean War vet
“As you know my father and his brothers were in WW11 as were your father and Uncle John. One, a paratrooper in the Army Air Corps. and one in the Marine Corps.
At the time, they always seemed more respectful of the f-word or using God in a cursing fashion. Not that they never cussed, but not as much, and they always tried to be respectful of women or sometimes children in the room. Depended on how mad we made Uncle Gordon if you know what I mean!”
“I have to admit my language could stand some cleaning up…and I have noticed it more and more in working with the younger guys here at work ..the f-word seems to have become part of acceptable English…and is used much more than I even remember it when I worked in body shops and on used car lots….I have been trying to use words such as “Oh murder” or “For the love of crackers,” (Gee, I wonder where those came from) instead of the now accepted cuss words.”
Son and nephew of WWII veterans
“Thanks for bringing that up. Nancy and I thought the same thing, in that it detracted greatly from the film. My Dad was in the Army, and won 3 purple hearts on Luzon, but he never cussed like that! I’ll admit as well that I think in Vietnam is when we lost our values in using decent language.”
“I was raised in a Christian family and although my dad was an alcoholic and prone to come home drunk at times and upset mom by breaking dishes and cursing, I never heard him use the f-word or the n-word nor use the word GOD in vain.”
“While in the Navy and the Army Air Corps, and the U.S. Air Force, when I was one on one or in a position of authority, I used to challenge a cursing by asking the curser to explain the meaning of his words in simple English. I normally just walked away. I found that to be the most frustrating action to take, especially late when I was a supervisor dealing with a hardcore union man or steward. They found out that it is pretty hard to justify a grievance under those circumstances.”
“With the exception of one character from E. Chicago, IN, I didn’t experience an overwhelming amount of swearing. This one guy was a street-wise gambler and numbers runner, and all he did was swear – using any and all of the words. Most of the guys swore some, and talked some sex, but not to any great extent.
After some alcohol intake, most everyone swore some, and talked some sex, but not too much otherwise. The use of the f— word was minimal.
The majority of swear words was damn, sh–, or horse sh–, and once in a while “for Christ s—s”, and bast–d, but that was the extent of it.
This may be hard to believe, but our D.I. in basic training, a big redhead from a tough New Jersey city, never swore. Instead, he used the word “bullpippy.” You really knew he was upset when he said “bullpippy” about 3 times in a row.
And when we were flying, either in training, or later on missions, there was an occasional damn or sh–, but you didn’t have time to waste swearing. Hope this helps.
WWII B-17 tail-gunner and Purple Heart recipient
“As commissioned officers, we had to set a good example to the other men in the Air Force. There were some who swore, but not very many. Our group did not do much of that.”
“It was used some but not in excess, at least not any more than all the others.”
Bob Babcock has asked me to correspond with you on this subject.
“I am a veteran of the Korean War, serving in Korea with the Second Infantry Division, during 1951 and 1952. I can appreciate what the WWII veterans said about this, and I hope I am remembering, accurately, what our thoughts were on the same subject. I know you will understand that most of the guys, in this time era, had never seen an “R” rated movie or anything close to it. When Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” sharp intakes of breath were heard all over the theatre. The language morals of the movie venue were still in place in WW II and the Korean War, and this carried into much of life, at that time. I remember the only show business personality we got to see in Korea was Jack Benny, and his troupe. We drove a long way to get to see the show, and it was filled with off color jokes, which is not what we expected to hear from a famous comedian, at that time. I easily remember how disappointing it was. It seemed to me that he must have felt that “off color” was the only thing that a bunch of GIs wanted to hear and would understand.
However, things move on, and it seems to me that things like the f-word came into prominence in the same time frame as the Vietnam war. The use of that and a lot of other things stained the country, and it may never fully recover. I don’t think it had anything to do with the war or the guys and girls who fought in it. It had to do with a hatching out of some idiots who got a lot of publicity over being radical (including their language), and it will take a long time to flush out. Good ole Hollywood played a large part in glamorizing some of the clowns of that time, and I believe it had a large part to play in the language of (unfortunately) all of us.
As far as I am concerned the WWII vets were very correct in their comments and criticism of the language in the movie.
I remember one time when double dating with our best friends in high school, late 1950’s – they were seniors and we were juniors. Wayne was poked in the ribs by his girl friend, Ann – and he said, “Damn!” All four of us reacted in stunned and shocked disbelief. In those days, bad words like that were never used in front of ladies. They were left in the locker room after football practice. And the f-word? No way would it ever have been uttered, even very often in the locker room back then.
Randy – I also sent your note to a guy who interviews lots of WWII vets for the Veterans History Project (1,000 thus far) – I’ll see if he has some close buddies who might shed some light on that.”
“I should have replied to your mail earlier. I have lived in Virginia all of my life and the “f-word” was seldom ever heard in my youth or even today. I didn’t like it then and feel uncomfortable with it today. Writers for TV and movies seem to be unable to write a sentence with out using the word.
Company H 116th Infantry was a Virginia National Guard unit, and after induction into Federal Service, the first recruits were from Virginia and little profanity was heard. Later we had men from all parts of the country, we had some profanity but almost never heard the “f-word.” Men from farms and small towns did not talk that way.”
WWII veteran29th ID Omaha Beach
“Yes, Randy, the f-word was used quite frequently during the years (64-68) that I was on active duty in the Marine Corps. To a certain extent, it was emphasized by our drill instructors in an attempt to get their point across and, as is my case, was picked up by us recruits. Young and ignorant, we knew no better. It was all part of being a big, bad Marine, a cultural byproduct, so to speak. As the years have gone by, the use of profanity has pretty much gone by the wayside and its use does not really bother me that much, but I would rather not hear it. Unfortunately, today’s youth don’t seem to be able to converse without its use. Hope this helps.”
“I stopped down at my parents last night and asked them about swearing during World War II. As you know my father was a B-24 pilot who flew in the USAAF 8th Air Force, 446th bomb group out of England. I asked him your question and he said there was no swearing during training or during combat from enlisted personnel or officers.
My mother worked at WPAFB during the war and also travel the country with Dad as he went through cadet and pilot training and no one she came in contact with swore either.
As I look at my own life and how often I use inappropriate language it reminds me that they were the greatest generation.”
Son of a WWII veteran
“I was aware of the “F” word. I served two and a half years at WPAFB. This was a higher caliber of GI, and we worked with the civilian work force. Upon moving into the real war world, there was a different group of GI’s and the word was more common. Use of the “F” word as an adjective indicated a lack of vocabulary. So many of us did not use the word.”
WWII era military
“I think, in general, that the abundant use of the f-word, unfortunately, started with our generation. The WWII generation seems to have used the d-word and the s-word more for cursing. Unfortunately, many people in our generation and younger do not actually consider the f-word to even be a curse word anymore. I hear it used frequently in daily conversation by male professionals in the 25-50 year old age range on the streets of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. This may be somewhat due to the abundant use of the word in modern tv shows and movies. Sad.”
In conclusion, other comments that I received suggested that the men and women of that era, not only spoke without the use of much profanity, especially the f-word, but also were more eloquent in their writing (especially their cursive writing) and more sophisticated in their use of the English language. I, personally, have always been impressed with the handwriting and the appropriate use of language in the letters and diaries I have read from that era.
These comments seem to reinforce what Earl Morse told me that day, and although it does not surprise me, it has made me even more proud of these men and women of “the greatest generation.” Randy Ark