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The War That Was

updated 08/07/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1995 01:00AM

It may have been the last unequivocally joyful moment in recent U.S. history. Fifty years ago on Aug. 14, celebrating the achievement of a great common purpose that seems ever more distant, jubilant Americans streamed into the streets to cheer the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. It was a war that cost more than 400,000 American dead. Among those who would survive and rejoice at its end were several future celebrities: producer Norman Lear, now 73, Oscar-winning actor Rod Steiger, 70, and comedian Jonathan Winters, 69. Here each remembers vividly the war that helped form them, and which, finally, spared them.

NORMAN LEAR: Remembering in wonder his time delivering death

His family wanted him to stay in school at Boston's Emerson College and leave the fighting to someone else. But in September 1942, Lear, a 20-year-old sophomore from Hartford, Conn., "just had to get into it—I was Jewish, and I wanted to kill Germans." As an Army Air Forces radio operator-gunner, tech sergeant Lear flew 33 combat missions with the 772nd Squadron of the 463rd Bomb Group—led by celebrated flyer Col. Frank Kurtz, father of actress Swoosie. One was the longest run in Europe, from the squadron's base in Foggia, Italy, to destroy a Berlin tank factory in March 1945.

We bombed Berlin twice. The flights took around 16 hours. Our targets were always manufacturing or military areas. But often enough, and on all the missions, we could see the bombs might not have been going exactly where we thought. I'd see the bombs going down and see the damage they were doing on the ground, not knowing who they might have been killing, and feel elated. It's very hard to reconcile that this was the same me. I can't imagine that I held those feelings. And I can't imagine I went through all that, watched the fighters coming at us, saw all the flak, did all the shooting, jumped up and grabbed my gun. That's not me.

This is what allowed me to get on the plane: You never believe it's you who might die. I think God made us this way. I think it's quite possible that until it happens, or is just about to happen, we don't believe it. Nothing else could explain to me how my group of guys got on this plane every time, laughing while doing it.

When I flew home after the war, our crew landed in Palm Beach. The last couple of hours flying I recall thinking, "If we only get down, if I get home, when I kiss the ground—Norman, you will never be afraid again. How on earth could I possibly be afraid again having gone through what we've all gone through?"

I feel good to have been a part of it. I was a pacifist or the equivalent during Vietnam. Had I been of age, I would not have gone. I think it takes as much strength to do one as to do the other.

But if the situation were the same as World War II, I'd go and probably feel all the same things again. When word of the Holocaust started to trickle through, and we all understood this was what was going on, it was not unlike the feelings millions of us felt when we heard of the Oklahoma City bombing. Once again, put me in a room with someone who was responsible for that, and I could kill with my bare hands—and I'm shocked that I could. It's like my friend Maya Angelou says all the time: I am capable of whatever any other human is capable of. This is one of the great lessons of war and life.

ROD STEIGER: Helping to shell Iwo Jima, and surviving a typhoon

When he was a teenager, Rod Steiger's home life was so turbulent because of alcoholic problems in his family that even the wartime Navy seemed to him a safe harbor. In May 1942 the 16½-year-old from Newark, N.J., lied about his age and became a torpedo man's mate third class. He spent most of his three-plus-year hitch on the destroyer USS Taussig, seeing action in major battles including Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Iwo Jima was unforgettable. We were firing into Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. The Marines' automatic weapons weren't working because the beach was volcanic ash—which nobody had realized. They'd get off a couple of rounds, drop to the ground, ash would get in the mechanism, and that would be the end of that. So they were fighting the Japanese with the weapons recovered from the dead Japanese, which weren't automatic.

Another thing I'll never forget—and it taught me a big lesson about the absence of glory in a war—was that we were throwing shells in so fast, and the Marines were advancing so quickly, that communication wasn't fast enough to keep up. We were knocking off our own men. That's where that horrible, inhuman phrase comes from, "They were expendable."

We were also involved in the first carrier-based bombing raid on Tokyo since the one [Gen. Jimmy] Doolittle led in '42. Our ship was off the coast of Japan, and we encountered no enemy warships, only sampans, which is a memory I'll always be haunted by. They had women and children on them, and we had to sink them. Any one of those little boats could have had a radio on it—we couldn't have the Japanese know we were that close. I'll never forget shooting those sampans.

The most powerful memory you can possibly get out of a war, outside of being badly wounded yourself, is to talk to somebody, then turn away to light a cigarette—and when you turn back, they're dead. It's amazing; it happens all the time in war. The simplicity of it is horrendous.

The closest I came to getting killed myself was during the big typhoon at the very end of the war. The typhoon was so bad—90-foot waves—that when your vessel rolled from side to side you could see nothing but the superstructure above water. I saw a smaller destroyer near ours—it turned over and went down, almost without a bubble. No one survived.

I volunteered to go out in that storm after a depth charge had broken loose. Without a detonator in, that's not very dangerous. But 400 pounds of explosives makes you a little nervous! So I put a rope around me, and I slithered out and lashed it down. As I turned to go back, I looked up and there was this wave—it was 50 feet above me. The wave hit me, carried me along the deck. The only thing that saved me were the guide wires.

Then I had to lay there and time my breathing because every time the ship went down on my side, I would go under about four feet. I'd come up for air while the other side was under, take a breath and then finally, when I got my strength back, I crawled inside.

JONATHAN WINTERS: Finding a refuge from horror in humor

After watching the 1939 swashbuckling Gary Cooper film Beau Geste 25 times, young Jonathan Winters dreamed of joining the French Foreign Legion. Two years after Pearl Harbor, the 17-year-old Ohio native did what seemed the next best thing: he enlisted in the Marines. Following boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., Private First Class Winters spent six months in a Philadelphia naval hospital with acute kidney disease, then a year on the carrier Bon Homme Richard as part of an antiaircraft machine-gun crew.

You spend six months with guys whose arms have been blown off or whose faces have been shot away, and you never look at an injury, or even a healthy body, the same way. The experience of being with those men in the hospital had a profound effect on my humor—it made me realize how much humor is a rebellion against tragedy.

On the Bon Homme Richard we saw action in the Philippines, in the Marshall Islands, at Truk and Ulithi. The one thing that makes me look back and say how lucky I was is that we were the only Essex-class aircraft carrier in the Pacific that wasn't hit. My buddies and I slept right over the magazine, which is where all the bombs are kept. I can remember bunking down and looking at that every night, thinking, "Whew! If those get hit!" We took one kamikaze hit—and he just grazed us. We were that lucky.

The war definitely had an influence on what I've done in later life. For me, the discipline really helped because, as an actor, you're in a business built on rejection. I had an attitude I'd formed, getting yelled at on Parris Island: [Voice of drill sergeant from hell] "Giddup, yew son of a bitch! Get up and walk RAT NOW!" And I'd start to walk, you know? Because you can make it. When you got through boot camp, you were made to feel that you could handle yourself anyplace.

PAM LAMBERT
F.X. FEENEY and CAROLYN RAMSAY in Los Angeles

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