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Beacon Senior News

Uniforms never die

May 05, 2020 09:23AM ● By Jacqueline Lynch

Cinema lobby card for "Since You Went Away" (1944) starring Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker.

The uniforms are one of the most iconic images we remember from World War II-era films.

Especially in the “home front” movies, because unlike battle scenes where all the soldiers are indistinguishable from each other in their fatigues and helmets, the home front movies show us newly-minted servicemen standing out from the civilian crowd.

Retro movies

Publicity still from "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)

In “Since You Went Away” (1944), Robert Walker plays a young Army recruit visiting his grandfather, who rents a room in the suburban home of Claudette Colbert and her daughters. He begins an ill-fated romance with her older daughter, played by Jennifer Jones. He seems shy and awkward with this typical American family who tries to make him feel welcome.

His uniform makes him special.

His grandfather, played by the irascible Monty Woolley, is a retired Army colonel doing wartime government work, yet he is not the “celebrity” that the young man is with the corporal’s stripes and his olive drab coat and pants, his tie neatly tucked into his shirt, and his overseas cap.

Publicity still from "I'll Be Seeing You" (1945) featuring Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers.

Like Walker, Joseph Cotten in “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1945), is a soldier on leave with nowhere to go until a family “adopts” him for a few days. Shirley Temple plays the bubbly little sister in both films, but in this one, Ginger Rogers takes the part of the romantic partner for the soldier. 

Both men seem out of place in civilian life, though they have been in the Army only a short time. It has changed them, and their uniforms have changed them in the eyes of the civilians.

In “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), Fredric March is the returning middle-aged father who can’t wait to change back to civilian clothes after being away from his family for what seems a lifetime. Dana Andrews plays a dashing Army Air Corps captain who discovers his unfaithful wife was really only attracted to his uniform. Her attitude is shallow, but it does reveal something about what the public perceived as glamour in a dark and frightening time.

The Army uniform of the day, referred to as “pinks and greens” is only one identification of The Greatest Generation. For many of us, the uniforms are entwined with personal family memories.

Personal uniforms

My own father wore the Army uniform in his formal portrait that my mother kept on the table all the years he was gone in the jungles of the South Pacific. He wears it in snapshots taken the first exhilarating days when he returned home, hugging his wife and daughter (who had been still a baby when he left over three years before) while friends and relatives took turns holding the Brownie box camera. Relatives asked my father to wear his uniform on his first rounds of visits to them when he came home, especially the little nephew who wanted to see his uncle soldier.

The servicemen were issued their “ruptured duck” pins identifying them as veterans and were allowed one month before they legally had to return to civilian clothes. Father wore out his uniform pants and shirts while gardening in the months and years ahead.

All that's left of his uniform are the two bands of medal ribbons that had been pinned over the left breast pocket, which I still have, and the Army portrait photo, which sits behind me on my filing cabinet.

The U.S. Army has chosen to return to this “Army Greens” uniform for everyday business wear, and the current “Army Blues” uniform will return to being used as a formal dress uniform.

According to Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey, published on the site www.military.com, “We wanted a uniform that we could re-identify with the American public that was significant in the American public's eye of the sense of pride in their Army. That's why we went back in history and said, ‘What was the last time when there was this sense of pride and true identification…based upon their uniform?' And that's when automatically we both agreed it was pinks and greens during World War II.”

The “retro” uniform will begin to be phased in by 2020, mandatory for all soldiers by 2028.

The sense of pride and patriotism these uniforms evoke may just simply be the profound love for those awkward, brand-new ex-civilians who were sent far from home to save the world from fascism—The Greatest Generation, aka Dad, as he was depicted, not only in the portrait photo on the coffee table decades ago, but as portrayed on the home front in classic films.

Read more about honoring our veterans on Memorial Day.