Memorial Day preparations and programs are all going non-stop this weekend. In our small bucolic town in Central Massachusetts, our schools have all put together very nice programs to honor those members of our country who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Our high school put together a nice program where the students researched town members who had been killed in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Global War on Terror. They then read a brief bio on each to hit home the high cost of our freedoms.
Our vets from the local Veterans Council, VFW, American Legion, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Cub Scouts, as well as local citizens, went into our local cemeteries, placed flags on all of the military graves recently. Then we placed wreaths on all of the monuments around town.
Our local Memorial Day ceremonies will kick off at 8:20 today. Once that is over, we’ll partake in the traditional Memorial Day activities by grilling some food outside while giving thanks to those who made this all possible.
One of the other traditional fares on Memorial Day is the War Film marathons that are always on television. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites in the past, however, this year, we’re going to recommend a mini-series to binge watch and if you can last thru the entire thing, it will take some time.
Ken Burns produced some outstanding mini-series on PBS, his one of the Civil War back in 1990 was a classic. He later did one on Baseball in 1994 that was another must watch. But the one we’re recommending everyone dust off on Netflix is his marathon documentary on World War II, simply called ‘The War’.
Burns made this one in 2007 and it took six years of research to put together. Critics panned it because they said he tried to make it sound like the United States won the war alone. That is hogwash, Burns just eschewed the big picture and focused on the regular small town people of four communities and how the war was seen and felt down in Waterbury, Connecticut, Mobile, Alabama, Luverne, Minnesota, and Sacramento, California.
I was out of the country when it first aired and I missed it. It was put on my list of things to see but I never got around to watching it. Recently we saw it on Netflix and binge-watched the entire 15 or so hours over one weekend. And we were glad we did.
At the end of World War II, Eric Sevareid had reported to the people of the United States what he saw during the war years but after the war was over, he felt like he …and others like him failed to bring the true cost of it home. He wrote:
“Only the soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not — war happens inside a man — and that is why, in a certain sense, you and your sons from the war will be forever strangers. If, by the miracles of art and genius, in later years two or three among them can open their hearts and the right words come, then perhaps we shall all know a little of what it was like — and we shall know then that all the present speakers and writers hardly touched the story.”
What Burns showed in this masterpiece of filmmaking was while we all get to know several small-town Americans during the seven episodes, there is nothing ordinary about any of them. This isn’t a glossed over, sanitized version of World War II but a true first-hand look at the ugliness and cost of sending an entire generation off to war.
Burns often shows the brutality and the gruesome nature of how the war was conducted. With some never seen before footage. Troops being starved and beaten on the Bataan Death March, Japanese troops being burned alive by flamethrowers, the awful scope, and brutality of the Nazi death camps.
The remembrances of Quinten Aanonsen, a farmer’s son from Luverne are particularly poignant. He wanted to learn to fly to escape the family farm. He became a pilot of a P-47 Thunderbolt and as a close ground support squadron member, he saw up close what the awesome firepower of “the Jug” could bring on the enemy. He also watched many of his friends die. The girl he met while in flight school and their letters back and forth kept his sanity.
Two of the people who appear in the film have written books and they give a great look at the war in Europe and the Pacific. Paul Fussell was in the infantry fighting the Germans in France and Germany and his book “Doing Battle” was a definite page-turner. E.B Sledge from Mobile wrote the fantastic book, “With the Old Breed.”
“Something in me died at Peleliu,” Sledge wrote. “Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.”
The film also shares the plight of Japanese-Americans who were uprooted from their homes and ordered to internment camps. Then asked to serve the very country that treated them and their families as the enemy.
The treatment of the blacks both in the war factories and in the military gets spared nothing either. One of the more telling moments was that of a black Marine who was wounded and transported to a hospital ship, the only black man on board. And the ship’s barber refused to cut his hair.
“The War” is marvelously filmed with some outstanding action shots, the personal stories are both riveting and at times both funny and sad. And the narration by Keith David, who did the older Navy recruiting films, is first rate.
Take the time to watch “The War” which Burns brilliantly put together and when you see one of those bent-over WWII vets today, shake his hand and wish him well. After all, “The War” is their story.
Photo of US Pilot Quinten Aanonsen: PBS