Remembering great movies about WW II |

Remembering great movies about WW II

This is a stern view photograph of the cruiser USS St. Paul taken from a shore boat in 1966.

We have just entered the third week of 2015, and many of us this year will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War ll.

Of the 16,112,586 Americans who served in uniform during the war, 405,399 lost their lives and 670,846 were wounded. It was, by far, the nation’s deadliest conflict.

I was 9 years old when the war ended in 1945 (Germany surrendered May 7 and Japan on Aug. 14) and I remember joining my family and neighbors on the street outside our house where we banged on pots and pans to celebrate these two momentous victories.

During and after the war, scores of Hollywood motion pictures featuring WW II themes were made, and one of these, “In Harm’s Way,” was a particular favorite of mine because it was based on the best-selling novel of the same name written by my friend, Jim Bassett.

Jim and I were newspapermen in Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was the military editor (and later associate editor) of the Los Angeles Times, and I was a military and foreign affairs writer for the Los Angeles Examiner. Our papers were intense competitors, but we became friends and often covered the same stories together.

Jim, who was about 25 years older than me, had been a Navy Reserve captain during WW II and had served as public affairs officer for Fleet Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. I was an Army Reserve officer when we worked on the L.A. newspapers, and we frequently attended the same social events at the Army’s Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro and the Long Beach Navy Base. (Both bases were closed many years ago.)

When “In Harm’s Way” hit the screens in 1965, I was one of it is first customers. The film that starred John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Paula Prentiss, Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews is periodically shown on television. I’ve seen it at least a half-dozen times.

After the movie was released, Jim told me it had been filmed on locations at Pearl Harbor, San Diego, San Francisco and aboard the USS St. Paul (CA-73), a 14,500-ton, 673-foot cruiser that had been commissioned in February 1945, just seven months before the end of WW II.

The ship, which had a crew of 1,700, was ordered to the Pacific following sea trials and bombarded industrial targets on the Japanese mainland during the waning days of the war.

On Aug. 9, 1945, while firing at Japanese iron and steel works, the St. Paul fired the war’s last hostile salvo from a major allied warship. On Sept. 1, the cruiser entered Tokyo Bay and was there the next day for Japan’s formal surrender ceremony presided over by Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri.

A year after “In Harm’s Way” was first screened, Jim made arrangements for me to board the St. Paul, which was participating in training exercises off Long Beach.

Arriving at the ship via a shore boat, I took countless black and white photos and met the commanding officer and his staff who told me the St, Paul had engaged in many combat missions during the Korean War, and that during the war a tragedy had occurred in 1952 when 30 crew members were killed following a fire and explosion that had broken out in the forward 8-inch gun turret.

The St. Paul, I also learned during my shipboard visit, had taken part in five combat deployments during the Vietnam War, providing gunfire support for U.S. and allied land and sea forces. In 1971, the ship was hit by hostile fire that struck its starboard bow near the water line. No one was killed or injured, and the damage was immediately repaired at sea.

In late 1978, the 33-year-old cruiser was decommissioned, and in January 1980 ­— 35 years ago this month — the USS St. Paul, which had won 18 battle stars for service during WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, was sold for scrap.

I’ll never forget my visit to the St. Paul as well as what I learned from Jim Bassett as to why he named his novel “In Harm’s Way.”

The title, he said, came from a quote by Revolutionary War Capt. John Paul Jones who once exclaimed, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in Harm’s Way.”

John Wayne, Jim added, suffered from long cancer during the movie’s filming aboard the St. Paul and was coughing up blood. Two months after the filming ended, Wayne’s left lung and several ribs were removed.

A heavy cigarette smoker, Wayne died 14 years later, in June of 1979, at the age of 72.

Jim Bassett died in 1978 at 66.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be contacted at