During the Second World War, many in England lamented that American GI’s were “over-sexed, over-paid and over here” but what did that really mean? For the millions of American men and women who served in the United States’ armed forces during the war, for the millions of women who were left behind when their men went off to war, for an entire population that was shaking off the deprivation of the Great Depression only to experience the trauma of war, how and where was there time for love or just plain sex? Jane Mersky Leder explores these questions in Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex and World War II (Potomac Books, Inc., June 2009; 188 pages).
Thanks for the Memories considers all of the many faces of the American population during the war from the GIs, to the wives who followed them across America during basic training, to gay and lesbian soldiers to minorities to the eager young women of occupied Europe. Ms. Leder’s brief examination of the social and sexual experiences of each group offers an almost nostalgic exploration of what it meant to be young during the early 1940’s, with a world at war and life uprooted.
For example, she takes us through the courtships of Betty Lou and George Rarey who enjoyed a short but passionate marriage, despite being separated by his war time service, until George’s plane was shot down over Germany in 1944, leaving Betty Lou a widow. In the experience of George and Betty Lou Rarey, and many other stories that Ms. Leder retells, the reader is witness to the trials and tribulations of separation from lovers, the need for immediate emotional and sexual gratification that the fear (and perhaps excitement) of combat mandated, the loneliness of so many women left alone on the home front, and the ready money to be made by a thriving sex industry that has followed soldiers since the first army took the field.
Unfortunately, that is the extent of Ms. Leder’s exploration. After reading Thanks for the Memories, which in and of itself is a pleasant book to read, the reader cannot help but feel that the young men and women of the Second World War are really not all that different from young men and women today or at any other time in history. Although societal standards certainly may have relaxed during World War II, the behavior of the many young adults who used the war years as a period of sexual exploration and discovery cannot surprise a current student of social standards.
In one area, Ms. Leder does begin to plumb the depths of an area of research that has not been fully explored. Ms. Leder’s research into the experience of gay and lesbian members of the service branches is excellent and brings to a light a subject that is rarely addressed in mainstream studies of the military in World War II. Indeed, a casual reader of most history books might begin to believe that of the many millions of men and women who joined the service during the war years, none of them were gay. Thanks for the Memories helps to remedy that omission from much of the current literature.
Also, that is not to say that Thanks for the Memories does not have other merits. As a study in how relationships were maintained or destroyed by the war, Ms. Leder does an excellent job of researching the experiences of men and women -- whether black or white, gay or straight – and compiles a wonderful study of how relationships were influenced by the most significant military conflict in history. Therein lies the great flaw in Thanks for the Memories because sex really should not be emphasized in the title. Had the full title of the book been Thanks for the Memories: Love and Distance in World War II, the work would have been much better served.
Students beginning their study of the Second World War, and societal norms during the war years, will find Thanks for the Memories to be a good introduction to the development – and destruction -- of relationships caused by the mass migration and conflict of World War II. Experienced students of that period, however, will find Thanks for the Memories to be little more than a pleasant reflection on the way young people find a way to still be young, despite the chaos and uncertainty of war.
Book Review: Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex and World War II (Potomac Books, Inc., June 2009; 188 pages)
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