I’ve read maybe 100 books about World War II. Biographies, battle reports, unit histories, technological development?all these fascinated me as a boy and the human stories still interest me as an adult. Recently, we have been blessed to have filmmakers and historians who are capturing the stories of the veterans of the era for the ages. Some 130 million Americans lived during the war; it seems that all of them have a riveting story to tell.
Still, I’ve been surprised at how breathtaking Ken Burns’ “The War,” shown on PBS, is to me. I knew the timeline already? Guadalcanal, Tunisia, Tarawa, Anzio, and so on?but it’s those 130 million stories that still arrest me.
Actually, I expected that his approach of selecting four American towns for the focus of the 15 hours of film would be sentimental and maybe dull. It’s not. These towns in Alabama, Minnesota, Connecticut, and California experienced everything that typified the era. There were race riots among ship builders in Alabama, casualties and survivors from the major battles in small-town Minnesota, interred Japanese-Americans from California?everything that happened to us represented by these specific places. My grandparents’ and parents’ generations grow larger in my esteem every time I’m reminded of the challenges of their era, and of their response.
Perhaps nothing new here, but here is my takeaway from the interviews and accounts of Americans of the 1940s:
Unity of purpose?Strange to say, but even during this time of staggering racism Americans of all tribes wanted to fight for their country. Some did it overseas, some by factory work, and all by sacrifice. All gave some, as the song says.
Determination?POWs, Marines in Higgins boats, mothers waiting and praying at home, all continued their own missions for the duration. It is hard to fathom for those of us who have never faced mortal danger. Their example shames me in my whininess.
Sacrifice?Mothers, fathers, wives, and warriors of every generation have offered their best, sometimes their all, for their country and for their neighbors. It seems clear in listening to veterans that they have also sacrificed a degree of peace and innocence for the remainder of their days. The things they experienced appear to have changed everything about their lives.
Perspective?Many who served and sacrificed had to overlook huge inequities in order to offer their service. One news story of the era noted that all that American citizens of Japanese heritage had to give up (when moving to interment camps) was their freedom. I admire the perspective of the thousands who left those camps to serve in segregated combat units?fighting for their freedom while their own families lived in barbed-wire compounds.
Adaptability?It’s relative but everyone in our country experienced a hundred changes that affected every day of the war years for them. Soldiers and Marines and Sailors and Airmen of course experienced change to a more severe degree, just as they do now. They griped and they were ingenious in the ways they found to make life a bit more comfortable but they weathered it. That’s the point; they did what they had to do and almost all of them came through. People fear change, and some change is fearsome, but we probably fear it more than we should.
Now and again, someone creates something that has the potential of making those who read it or see it or otherwise experience it more complete people. It’s usually not a television program. This is one of those creations. The photos, the film, the interviews all tell a true story that no fiction can touch for suspense, for nobility, for horror, for amazing characters, and for meaning.
Watch it, make your kids watch it, talk about it while the WWII generation is still with us. See if it doesn’t make you sit up a little taller and want to be a bit more manly in your daily life.