may 1940

Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the first all-African-American, all-female unit to serve overseas in World War II, take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan d'Arc at the marketplace where she was burned at the stake. Rouen, France. May 27, 1945.

(US National Archives)

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She’s best known as a novelist, but Zora Neale Hurston was also one of the first African-American female film makers in the United States. In 1940 she directed a film team to document the religious services of the Commandment Keeper Church creating the short documentary Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940.

In 2005 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

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In May 1940, the Allies faced a dire scenario. The only escape from Hitler’s blitzkrieg for the nearly 400,000 soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, was across the English Channel. Over the course of eight days, the vast majority of troops were rescued. In the U.K., the evacuation of Dunkirk is considered a pivotal historical moment, and yet most Americans don’t know about it. That’s about to change.

For Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan enlisted Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and even One Direction’s Harry Styles in his cast, but the star is 19-year-old Fionn Whitehead, a London native making his film debut.

“One of the key things you came across, reading first-hand accounts of Dunkirk, was how young and inexperienced these soldier were,” Nolan says. “It felt very important to me, especially for Fionn’s part, to find somebody very new.”

Nolan’s search was extensive and involved several rounds of auditions. Eventually, he found Whitehead, an actor with only Him, a three-part ITV miniseries, to his credits. The part would be an enormous break for anyone, but Whitehead had to keep the casting a secret, even to his Him costars. “I felt so guilty,” Whitehead says. “Everyone was commiserating with me. ‘Never mind, mate. You’ll get the next one, aye? Not to worry.‘”

Whitehead, who plays a British private named Tommy, arrived in Dunkirk weeks before filming to prepare physically for the demands of the role, wading into the frigid water as practice. “I did a lot of swimming in a water-sodden wool uniform, hobnail boots, and with guns,” Whitehead says. “It was hard work, but I really enjoyed it. What’s life without a bit of a challenge?”

The goal for Whitehead was not to transform himself into a superhero, but just to make sure that he could get through the physical rigors expected of a World War II soldier.

“The stunt team put me through my paces and getting my physically in shape just to be able to do the shots that were going to be demanded of me, to be honest,” Whitehead says. “They didn’t want me to be some super human, just in order to be able to do the things that were required and to not get sick and not be too tired to get a bit more in shape because I was very scrawny when I went for the role.”

Dunkirk arrives in theaters July 21.

SS-Gruppenführer Paul Hausser, commander of the Das Reich Division, presents the Knight’s Cross to SS-Untersturmführer Ludwig Kepplinger in September 1940. Kepplinger was a company commander in Regiment Der Führer of the Das Reich Division at the time, and was awarded the coveted decoration for his bravery during the assault on the Dutch fort of Westervoort on 10 May 1940. Kepplinger and two of his men neutralised the key enemy strongpoint and managed to break through and proceed with the advance after capturing more than 90 soldiers of the Dutch garrison. Thirty more prisoners were capture later on the same day. He has been shot several times once in the hand, twice in the upper thigh and twice in the lower abdomen during the attacks on Dutch bunkers and fortified positions.

Flight Sergeant Edward Roland Thorn (pilot, left) and Sergeant Frederick J Barker (air gunner) of No 264 Squadron RAF and their Teddy Bear mascot, presented to them by their ground crew, posing with their Boulton-Paul Defiant Mark I L7005 - PS-B at Biggin Hill, Kent, after destroying their first Heinkel He 111. May/June1940

Over Dunkirk on 28th May 1940 they destroyed three Me109’s, on the 29th they destroyed two Ju87’s and a Me110 and shared a He111 and on the 31st destroyed a He111 and damaged two more. Both men were awarded the DFM (gazetted 14th June 1940).