World War II

In today’s episode, we’re talking about World War II on Memorial Day weekend. We don’t have time to talk about even a fraction of the war, so we’re just touching on a few topics that we’re interested in about how American soldiers got to the front.

Guest bio: Kim Guise

Kimberly Guise is a Curator and Assistant Director for Curatorial Services at The National WWII Museum. She holds a BA in German and Judaic Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also studied at the Universität Freiburg in Germany and holds a masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Louisiana State University. Kim is fluent in German, reads Yiddish, and specializes in the American prisoner-of-war experience in World War II. After working at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, she began working at The National WWII Museum in 2008, where she has since facilitated the acquisition of thousands of artifacts, led numerous Museum tours, and curated several exhibits including Guests of the Third Reich: American POWs in Europe. (from the National World War II Museum website)


ABBY: Hey, I have a recording for you.

JACK BENNY: Hello again, this is Jack Benny, talking from Cairo Egypt, which is a main oasis between Tel Aviv and Waukegan. Imagine, folks, it’s one o’clock in the morning here and three o’clock yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles. I’m just going to bed and Phil Harris isn’t even up yet.

MAGGIE: I don’t understand; why is that guy in Cairo?

ABBY: His name is Jack Benny, and he was an entertainer. During World War II, he did shows to entertain the American troops who were out fighting the war. Here he’s in Cairo, Egypt, and he’s making jokes about just how far he and all these American servicemembers have gone from home. Phil Harris, by the way, worked with Jack Benny on his show, but you probably know him better as the voice of Baloo the bear from the Jungle Book, and Little John from the animated Robin Hood.

MAGGIE: I guess the difference between the troops and Jack Benny is that he gets to go home after the show, and they don’t.

ABBY: That’s right.

MAGGIE: World War II is our topic for today’s episode of

MAGGIE and ABBY: Big If True,

MAGGIE: where I, Maggie,

ABBY: and I, Abby,

MAGGIE: Explore the truth about big things. Today our topic is World War II, but that war is SO big that we’d be here all day if we tried to give you the whole history. So instead we’re going to focus on American servicemembers’ experiences—and especially talk about how far they had to go in order to fight.

ABBY: Some of the soldiers came home after traveling the world to fight, but some of them didn’t.

MAGGIE: So here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge.

ABBY: How many American servicemembers died during World War II?

MAGGIE: A. Around 10,000; B. Around 170,000; C. Around 300,000, or D. Around 420,000.

ABBY: We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the show.

MAGGIE: Our expert today knows a lot about World War II because her job is to help people remember the war.

KIM GUISE: My name is Kim Guise. I am Assistant Director for Curatorial Services at the National World War II Museum. As a curator, I work with the museum’s collections. So we collect artifacts, and archives, and stories from World War II, so pieces that people had with them, that they carried with them, uniforms, things that they wore, weapons and things that they used. But also, diaries and letters, they wrote home, scrapbooks that people kept, photographs that they took, so I get to work with all of that really neat stuff every day.

MAGGIE: Thank you for talking to us! Can you tell us what your museum commemorates about World War II?

GUISE: The National World War II Museum was formed to tell the story of the American experience in World War II, why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today. So that’s our mission statement. We talk about the different kinds of experiences that Americans had during the war, not just those Americans who were fighting, but people who experienced the war on the homefront.

MAGGIE:Who was involved in World War II?

GUISE: World War II was fought between the Axis and the Allies. And the main countries in the Axis were Germany, Italy, and Japan. And the main countries in the Allies were referred to as the Big Three: the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. So although, you know, these were the major powers, the major players in World War II, more than 50 nations fought during the war, and a couple even switch sides during the war, from the Axis to the Allies. So now we talk about with World War II, we talk about the war in Europe and the war in the Pacific.

MAGGIE: Why did World War II happen?

GUISE: There are a lot of reasons and lots of debate still about why World War II happened. So the title World War II, right, tells us that it’s the second one, it did happen before. And some people say that World War II was started to get revenge for World War I. So, you know, that’s, that’s one reason. But I think, you know, there are lots of reasons including power-hungry people and nations, greed, revenge, like I talked about, and then hatred. So some nations wanted more resources, more territory, more power and influence. And they expanded and they took over other countries and other people.

[Stars and Stripes Forever]

MAGGIE: When did the United States get involved?

GUISE: The United States got involved after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

GUISE: So that was a Japanese attack that took place on December 7, 1941. And Japanese a plane planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. And they, the attack went on for over two hours, and around 2400 Americans were killed in the attack, and a lot of our warships were destroyed in that attack. So, after the attack, we, the US declared war on Japan. And then three days later, the other Axis Powers Germany and Italy, declared war in return on us. So in December 1941, we were drawn into the war. That’s when the US got into the war that had already been going on for years.

[Stars and Stripes Forever]

MAGGIE: How many US servicemembers fought in World War II?

GUISE: we know that around 16.5 million Americans served in World War II, and that was about 12% of the whole American population in 1941. One interesting thing is, you know, many people volunteered to serve to fight, but not everyone, so about, about 60% of the 16.5 million were drafted, they were picked in a lottery system. And they were made to go to war. They were told to, they had to. So. And then not all of the 16.5 million had the job of fighting. Some people were on the frontlines, and it was their job to fight in combat, but it took a lot of people to backing those individuals up to enable that fight to continue.

MAGGIE: How far did they have to go to fight?

GUISE: That’s depended on, you know, a few things: where you were. And then of course, where you were going; whether you were going to serve in the war in Europe, or the war in the Pacific. And when you think about World War II, we fought World War II on land, in the air, and at sea. So, and all over the world of 11 million, you know, we said 16. 5 million Americans served; 11 million of those Americans served overseas. So that could mean as much as 8000 miles away from home, they were really going almost halfway around the world to serve. And getting Americans, getting those individuals to the places where the fighting was taking place was one of the biggest challenges that the US had during the war, it was really difficult to transport all of the people and supplies to the places where the fighting was happening.

USS Wakefield, a troop transport. Sepia-tone photo.
USS Wakefield (AP-21), Rebuilt by Navy Yard, Boston, Massachusetts: a troop transport. National Archives and Records Administration.

[bus sounds to train sounds]

Most young Americans, and most Americans who went into service, hadn’t been very far from home. So they might never have been out of their hometown before going into the service. And so their journey and service often began with a bus or a train trip to boot camp, to their first training camp where they were going to first learn, you know, the rules of how to be a soldier or a sailor. And then they might after that, they might go to another place where they get some advanced training. And then after that, they usually went to a port.

[port sounds]

And there were ports, there were several big ports in the US where they staged ships to send men and materiel overseas. And some of those ports, the biggest were in New York and San Francisco, those were the biggest ports. But there was also a port in New Orleans, where I am here, and there was a port in Virginia. So Hampton Roads, that was another place where American servicemen left the US to go overseas. And so typically, they got on a big ship that could hold as many as 15,000 people. And the ships would go to their destination where the soldiers, sailors, Marines were going to be stationed. Because there were enemy submarines out there, sometimes the ships went in convoys, where you know, it was groups of ships traveling together to get to the destination. So that way, they would have a little more protection from enemy submarines that might be trying to attack them. They also, this is one interesting thing, I think, they also sometimes traveled in a zigzag pattern to confuse the enemy and to prevent from enemy attack. So it could take with all of these things going on, and also with the sea, you know, the unpredictability of the sea, it could be really bad weather, they could have storms. It could take you a week or more on one of these ships to get where you were going. And sometimes you didn’t even know where you were going. And you were with all these other people. And the accommodations were not luxurious at all. So you know it, it could take a while. And that was a little bit about the, you know, getting, getting overseas.

MAGGIE: How did World War II end?

GUISE: So the war in Europe ended, when Germany surrendered. And the Allied Powers met in Germany’s capital, which was Berlin, in May 1945. And V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day was celebrated on May 8, 1945.

GUISE: After this, many soldiers thought that they would be sent to the Pacific to fight. So even though– you know, the war in the Pacific was still going on. And so a lot of soldiers who were in Europe thought that they were going to have to go to the Pacific to keep fighting. And sometimes that did happen in a few cases. But the war in the Pacific ended months later, after the US used the atomic bomb against Japan, and that killed hundreds of thousands of people, many people still debate whether or not that was needed, whether or not that was a moral choice. And it’s the only time it was used in warfare. And it brought about, you know, so after the atomic bomb was used, the US was victorious and we had V-J Day. So in Europe, it was V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day. In the Pacific, it was V-J Day: Victory over Japan day, and that was August 14, 1945. After that, it would take many more months, a year, you know, to get all of those Americans home from service.

MAGGIE: How many Americans were killed in World War II?

GUISE: Nearly 420,000 Americans were killed during World War II and not all over the world. So those are Americans that didn’t get to return home that lost their lives during the war.

MAGGIE: Hey, there’s the answer to our quiz question: almost 420,000 Americans were killed during World War II.

ABBY: World War II was a very big and very terrible war. Even those who didn’t die were permanently scarred in their bodies or their minds. And of course that doesn’t even take into consideration all the people who weren’t fighting, and yet had their homes or lives destroyed because of the war. War is a very terrible thing.

Oil painting of soldier in a stretcher being lifted onto a transport.
“A Warrior Homeward Bound,” oil painting. William F. Draper. Naval History and Heritage Command.

MAGGIE: So this Memorial Day weekend, as you have a cookout or hang out with your family, remember that even a war fought for the right reasons has very terrible consequences.

ABBY: And that’s all for this week’s special Memorial Day episode of

MAGGIE and ABBY: Big If True.


Big If True is produced by me, Abby, and Maggie. Special thanks to our guest, Kim Guise of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. If you’re ever in Louisiana, you should check it out. Our music is by Andrew Cote. For more videos, audio, and other resources about World War II, check out our shownotes at Thanks for listening, and be sure to tell a friend to listen too!

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