ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. –The Signal Corps in World War II was responsible for producing and distributing thousands of motion-picture films. The films, which many say directly influenced the war’s outcome, covered wide-ranging topics. These included training and indoctrination films targeted at military audiences, newsreel footage and informative films designed to keep the American public informed and to boost their morale, and motivational films meant to increase and maintain a high production level by factory workers supporting the war effort.
When the United States entered World War II, the Army faced the daunting task of quickly and effectively training millions of civilians to be Soldiers.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall and other high-ranking officers recognized that the use of training films could speed the indoctrination and training process. They gave the mission to produce the films to the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps formed the Army Pictorial Service, or APS, and soon thereafter purchased a motion-picture studio on Long Island, New York.
During the course of the war, the Signal Corps had other studios at places like Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and it had photographers located throughout the world.
The Army recognized early in this process that they lacked trained film crews, directors and producers, and contracted with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for assistance. The quality of its early training films left much to be desired, so it drafted and commissioned many of Hollywood’s elite to ensure the films were effective. Marshall himself ordered the commissioning of Frank Capra, who later produced and directed "It’s a Wonderful Life." Other talent commissioned directly out of Hollywood included Theodor Seuss Geisel, later known as children’s book writer Dr. Seuss.
The training films cut training time by an average of 30%. Marshall, excited by the training films’ effectiveness, expanded the Signal Corps mission to include other types of products that, like the training films, would disseminate knowledge quickly and efficiently.
In addition to training films, there were morale and orientation films designed to explain the war to the new service member. The inductees needed to understand just why they were being sent to war – leaving their families and risking their lives. The War Department believed a force that understood why it was fighting – and understood the consequences if it lost – made for a motivated and effective one.
At the start of the war, the War Department had speakers traveling the country giving speeches designed solely for this purpose, but they were failing. The troops found the speeches to be confusing and boring after a challenging day in basic training. Marshall chose Capra to "make a series of documented, factual information films – the first in our history – that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting."
Within a month of the tasking, Capra and some Hollywood screenwriters had completed scripts for a number of films based on the War Department lectures. This was the start of the Why We Fight series, one of the Signal Corps’ most famous.
These successful films helped Soldiers, sailors or Marines understand why they were in uniform, how they fit into the global conflict, and how their jobs related to the jobs of other servicemen. They defined the enemy, taught about allies, and even provided entertainment. The films were shown not just to service members but also to civilians. The first in the Why We Fight series, "Prelude to War" (1942), won the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature. The 5th film in the Why We Fight series, “Battle for Russia,” made its Army premier at Fort Monmouth.
Other Signal Corps films were intended to stimulate war production or build public confidence in the U.S. Films like "The Arm Behind the Army" brought the war home to the factory worker, the farmer and the miner – to anyone within the U.S. manufacturing base who directly or indirectly supported the war. The undersecretary of war said films like this counteracted any tendency on workers’ part "to take things easy" when it appeared the United States was winning later in the war.
Informational films were used to keep both the force and the public informed on the war’s status. The Signal Corps had film crews deployed throughout the world shooting combat footage. This footage was promptly returned to Washington for dissemination to military leaders. Declassified versions became newsreels for the general public.
An estimated 30 to 50% of each newsreel shown to the public at commercial motion-picture theaters across the world during the war was comprised of Signal Corps footage. Millions of people in the United States would have had a hazy and uninformed view of why and where the war was being fought had it not been for Signal Corps films. Skilled Signal Corps Soldiers recorded vital battles, not only informing the present but preserving forever both the horror of war and the resilience of the brave Soldiers that fought.
Combat photography was not a safe job. Many combat cameramen were killed in action. Of the 1,400 Allied cameramen on Europe’s Western front alone, 101 were wounded and 32 killed taking the footage for a single film, “The True Glory,” which told the story of General Eisenhower’s campaigns.
By the war’s end, the Signal Corps had produced more than 2,500 films of many different types, 1,000 of which were translated and shared with the Allies. For many families, the films and photographs produced by the Signal Corps provided a much-needed glimpse into where their loved ones were and what they were experiencing. The films also galvanized the country, taught life-saving skills, and gave our Soldiers the resolve to continue the fight. The legacy of the Signal Corps photographic mission lives on in the hearts and minds of anyone who chooses to look back and commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces.