Today the nation honors men and women who have served our country with distinction. Many saw horrible things in faraway lands that more than a half-century later they still can’t talk about. Many World War II heroes lost limbs; many more died.
A few donned a swimsuit and posed for the camera.
One of my prized possessions is a 1940s photo of my grandma in “skimpy” clothing.
Young Myrtie Duval was 18 when she posed in what looks like a negligee but I am assured is a ’40s-era swimsuit. She was a candy girl at a suburban Chicago movie theater called The Terminal, where she had recently met the man she would one day marry.
Like many young men of the day, Lenny Johnson, went off to war. He asked Myrtie to marry him before he shipped out. She said no, and in my collection of photos is a photo of Lenny in a cap and gown with the inscription to my grandmother, “May I graduate into your heart.”
Like so many Americans, my World War II story is one that is reconstructed from a stray photo or two, burned records and stories that have been passed down so often that it’s hard to separate the fact from fiction.
My uncle told me Lenny was a signalman and one of the first men to cross the Remagen Bridge in Germany to set up a communication link. Later, a bomb apparently crashed through a building he was in but failed to detonate. So, miraculously, he survived to marry the cute girl behind the counter.
This is the only story I know about my grandfather’s service. A 1973 fire that burned up records for servicemen “from Hubbard to Z” makes it difficult for me to even figure out what unit he served in.
The story of how my grandmother became a pin-up girl is equally elusive but with a few more details.
Theodore Duval, Myrtie’s brother who passed away in 2009, remembers driving her to the photo shoot. Their mother explicitly warned him not to let her wear a tight sweater. To his knowledge, Myrtie followed her mother’s orders. But the picture in my album shows the real story.
While my grandmother could have been part of the swimsuit edition, the image that appeared in a publication sent out to U.S. soldiers in Europe was a headshot of my grandmother wearing a not-too-tight sweater.
Myrtie’s picture was published under the heading “Pin up girls, to keep your chin up, boys.”
A write-up next to the picture reads.
“Purrty Myrtie Duval is the Terminal’s candidate for pin up honors. At eighteen years she is a veteran of two and one-half seasons behind the candy canteen … Her draft board card reads ‘one hundred and five pounds, five feet, two inches high, blonde hair, grey eyes and home girl.’ Although she admits a preference for uniforms, Myrite’s first interest these days is her victory garden at the Duval domicile.”
By today’s standards, the pin-up girl phenomenon seems rather at odds with feminism — though downright tame when compared to the centerfold of a Playboy magazine.
But a soldier will tell you that during World War II, pin-up girls were a lifeline to the homefront.
John Power, a Destin resident and World War II veteran with the 35th Tank Battalion of the 4th Armored Division who passed away in 2011, said men in his unit used to hang pin-up girls in the turrets of their tank. He said he saw a lot of pin-ups, but his “No. 1 girl” was always his wife that he left back at home.
“Well, first of all a soldier is pretty lonely, and he’d love to look at a good lookin’ gal, and the pin-up girl was always it. We didn’t have television, of course, so a pin-up girl was it. When you are in the front lines every little thing helps, especially to see something like that from home.
“They didn’t peel it off like they do now, but every little piece of skin helped the GI.”
As for my grandmother, “she was part of the greatest generation,” Power said.
I will admit the picture feels at odds with the modest, humble woman I knew — a woman who always blocked my parents from giving me the punishment I deserved and raised me to be a Catholic priest. But I also know that my grandmother was love personified, and if her love of country asked that she raise some vegetables in a flower box or show a little skin, I’ll bet she did it.
Cancer pulled my grandmother from me before I could ever ask her about her reflections on being a pin-up girl. Years before, a sudden stroke at age 49 ended my grandfather Lenny’s life before I was born and squelched any chance of me ever knowing him or the World War II stories he took to the grave. I know he loved Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, worked at Western Electric and had a “grin that was bigger than life.”
With more questions left than answers, there is one thing I can say for certain. They served their country in vastly different ways, but my grandma and grandpa are true American heroes.
William Hatfield is editor of The Destin Log. This column first appeared in The Log's print edition in 2007. It was updated for today's Veterans Day.