On Sept. 1, 1939 Germany crashed into Poland with more than 100 divisions. LIFE called it, “The Second World War.” But it was an odd sort of world war, this first week. America remained unconvinced that this was the start of world conflict since London, Paris and the rest of Europe remained quiet. Adding to this perception is that British and French censors forbad sending any pictures of the German-Polish conflict to America. Meanwhile, Germany allowed American reporters on the front lines and widely published pictures of their conquest. This established a German reputation for frankness as well as highlighting military strength. Thus, Germany won the PR battle.
Germany enjoyed superior military strength over Poland as they rolled into the country. But the Polish Army fought hard and Germany lost an entire armored division and 25% of its air strength. On Sept. 16, 1939 Russia stuck the knife into Poland’s back and invaded from the east. Poland was doomed and fighting ceased on Oct. 6, 1939. A common myth is that Polish horse-mounted cavalry attacked German tanks. Actually, only 10% of the Polish Army was made up of cavalry units and they were used as mobile infantry and reconnaissance. It is interesting to note that the battle for Poland lasted only one week less than the Battle of France in 1940. The French were equal in men and air power to Germany and many considered French tanks to be superior to German tanks.
Poland’s allies, France and Britain, told Poland that “Help was coming and to hang on.” What many expected is that they would invade Germany to take pressure off Poland. French troops did move five miles across the German border and then stopped even though they were uncontested. After the war, a German general stated that if French troops had continued their invasion the Germans would have not been able to contain them longer than two weeks. There was a lot of wishful thinking at the time on the part of the Allies that once Germany got what they wanted out of Poland that Hitler would offer peace to the western powers. Perhaps this contributed to inaction by the Allies.
We see Generals Gamelin and Gort identified by LIFE as leading the Allies to war. Well, they did but not for long and very poorly. Gamelin, a hero for France in WWI, is a poster child for the expression, “Generals always fight the last war.” His strategy was to rely on the Maginot Line as well as a plan to move northward French troops into Belgium and the Netherlands to meet the attacking Germans. The Germans simply went around the Maginot Line and the French troops. Believing he had been betrayed rather than questioning his own tactics, Gamelin fired 20 of his front line commanders which only compounded the problem. This strategy also resulted in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), headed by General Gort, to become trapped at Dunkirk.
Gamelin was arrested by the Vichy regime and ultimately joined other French high officials as a prisoner at a castle in Germany. He died in Paris in 1958 at age 86. Gort is credited by some for successfully evacuating the BEF from Dunkirk, while other are more critical, faulting his decision to not join the French in organizing a large scale counter attack. Gort’s days of leading troops were finished and he served in civil affairs positions until his death in 1946.
On April 12, 1945 president Franklin D. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. While having his portrait painted the great orator said, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” He slumped forward and soon died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Thus one era ended, and another began. Germany surrendered one month later and the defeat of Japan was in sight. Accompanying the president in Warm Springs were several aides, his two cousins, Miss Delano and Miss Suckley, his daughter Anna, and Grace Tully. Miss Tully had been Roosevelt’s private secretary for 17 years. Several years later it was revealed that Anna had arranged for her father to meet there with his former mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherford. Mrs. Mercer was rushed away from the scene to avoid negative publicity.
Perhaps no picture captures America’s grief as the one above of Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson, tears streaming down his face, playing the sad strains of “Going Home” on his accordion. He had played many times for F.D.R. over the years. The shock to America of F.D.R.’s death is seen above in a series of photos of a young Chicago woman as she sees the sad headline. She bursts into tears as her husband and son shepherd the stricken mother across the street. LIFE photographer Myron Davis took this photo of the young mother. He is best remembered for his photo of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster sprawled on a Hawaiian beach, locked in a passionate kiss, taken for the movie “From Here to Eternity.”
The funeral train moved slowly from Warm Springs to Washington, D.C., taking 23 hours for the trip. The last car, where the body lay, was brilliantly lighted so people could see inside at night. Crowds were massed at every station along the way. LIFE said, “The people did not wave. They wept.”
On the day of F.D.R.’s death vice president Harry Truman at 5:15 PM received a call from the White House and asked to come as soon as possible. Mrs. Roosevelt welcomed him into her study and told him the president was dead. “What can I do?” asked Truman. Replied Mrs. Roosevelt, “Tell us what we can do. Is there any way we can help you?” The next day Truman greeted a group of reporters with teary eyes. “I don’t know whether any of you…ever had a load of hay or a bull fall on you,” he said, “but last night the whole weight of the moon and stars fell on me. If you fellows ever pray, please pray for me now.” Knowing Harry Truman’s penchant for salty language, I suspect reporters substituted the word “bull” for another word.
Vivi-Anne Hulten captured on the January 3, 1938 cover of LIFE was a five time Swedish figure skating champion but often in the shadow of Sonia Henie for much of her career. Ice skating became a big spectator sport at this time and Hulten toured with the Ice Follies, Ice Cycles and Ice Capades. Her dream was to follow her rival Sonie Henie into films but she did not succeed. In matters of love, however, Vive-Anne prevailed. She married Gene Theslof, the seven year pair skating partner of Henie. In the mid 1960’s she and her husband moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where they opened a large skating school. At age 80, Vive-Anne performed in ten ice shows with Ice Capades in Minneapolis, and continued to teach skating until age 86.
France and Germany share a border that is only about two hundred miles long. During WWI the French suffered severe losses from German invasion and built the Maginot Line to at the very least buy time in the event of another German invasion. They knew that Germany would also likely attack through Belgium but the Maginot Line would allow France to mobilize their army for a decisive confrontation with German forces. These pictures in LIFE were among the very first to depict the Maginot Line since the penalty for photographing or sketching it was life imprisonment in a military prison. However, the French Ministry of War approved a movie in which the Maginot Line plays the lead in order to raise money for comforts for the troops garrisoning there, and these images come from this source. This long fortress was impervious to most forms of attack, had good living conditions, underground railways and air conditioning. It consumed an enormous amount of money leading to other parts of the French Armed Forces to be underfunded. The Germans invaded France in 1940 through the Ardennes forest and via the low countries, thus avoiding the Maginot Line and conquering France in six weeks. Most of the Maginot Line was abandoned after WWII. Several old fortifications have been converted into wine cellars, mushroom farms and private homes.
Dr. George Gallup and his American Institute of Public Opinion surveys the citizens of Easton, PA, to see what was on their minds. Gallup had recently “perfected” his polling technique by targeting groups of people in similar circumstances based on the simple theory that these people think alike. If you can find out what a few people think, you can know what most of the whole group thinks. His latest polls of America in 1938 surfaced that: 70% of the people favored distribution of birth control information; 77% of the people voted against easier divorce laws; 84% favored sterilization of habitual criminals and the hopelessly insane. And 62% said they would not go to Europe and back on a plane even if someone paid all the expenses. The folks in Easton, PA reveal that many do not like President Roosevelt and strongly oppose double feature movies. The president of Easton’s Lafayette College says he is, “Opposed to relief, he would substitute some such system as on farms where horses not being used are taken care of.” He doesn’t say if relief workers would have to “whinny” for their food.