Compelling Companion to the Burns Documentary The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. Alfred A. Knopf. 452 pages; photographs; maps; index; $50.
The War, the best-selling companion volume to the PBS television series of the same name, is dedicated appropriately to "all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf." But World War II was a great traumatic event that affected the lives and fortunes of just about every American. Thus The War focuses on four American towns, the people who lived there, their men who went off to fight and the impact of those searing years on all of them. Each of those towns, like most American cities, was changed by the war, and those of their sons who survived that conflict were permanently scarred by what they had seen and experienced.
The narrative by Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the script for the documentary, is a straightforward, powerful, at times dramatic account, with few pauses for analysis. A thoughtful introduction by Ken Burns, producer and director of the film series, sets the stage. The text itself is continuously enhanced by the oral or written testimony of military and civilian veterans; by full-page illustrated inserts about matters discussed more briefly in the narrative; and, most importantly, by hundreds of striking photographs, many of which few readers will have seen before.
These pages show the changes the war brought to American cities, the impact on the lives of families waiting fearfully at home for news of their loved ones and how the entire country was involved one way or the other in a great national effort. Many more show the grim, tragic costs of war: dead and dying men, the difficult beaches and fields where they gave their lives, cities destroyed by bombs or artillery, stacks of naked bodies beside crematoriums and the sad faces of refugees seeking shelter amid the carnage. As Ken Burns explains, the authors seek to tell "the bottom-up story of so-called ordinary soldiers."
"Generals make plans," notes Ward, "and young men die." So The War focuses on individuals, almost always enlisted men and junior officers, usually in admiring tones. Only a few senior officers are mentioned by name, and not always favorably.
The text and pictures do not cover the entire war, which in this context would have been a Herculean task. In addition to the book's emphasis on the home front, these pages are primarily concerned with the ground war fought by American Army and Marine forces. They include some descriptions of aerial combat but only limited references to the naval war and even less discussion of what America's allies were doing. There are other omissions: The fighting in New Guinea and Burma, for example, is scarcely mentioned. Minor errors and oversimplifications sometimes occur. Yet these limitations do not detract from the overall excellence of the volume. Indeed, of all the other historical projects on which Burns and Ward have previously collaborated-The Civil War, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery and several others-this is surely one of the best.
About a thousand World War II veterans are dying each day, but Ward and Burns were able to interview nearly 50 surviving men and women and record their stories. They also consulted relevant web sites, memoirs and histories, and numerous photo archives.
The veterans' testimonies, which lend credibility and a sense of immediacy to the narrative, are frank, colorful and at times quite emotional. They relate what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., himself a wounded Civil War veteran, once described as "the incommunicable experience of war."
Holmes' words apply as much to the home front as to the conflict overseas. Of all the thousands of towns and cities affected by the war, Burns and Ward chose as typical examples four communities in different parts of the country: Sacramento, Calif.; Luverne, Minn.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Mobile, Ala. Each was selected for a different reason.
Sacramento was surrounded by three Army bases, was the new home of thousands of war workers and, most important, was inhabited by a large Japanese-American population. The latter fact gave the authors the opportunity to describe the forced removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to so-called relocation camps, as well as the hard fought actions of the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy and France. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), although not from Sacramento, is a Medal of Honor veteran of the 442nd. In The War, Inouye relates how, as a boy in Hawaii, he witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and how he was later grievously wounded in the regiment's bloody fighting in Italy. Other Nisei talk about the camps and combat in Europe, but surprisingly, there is no mention of the thousands of Japanese-Americans who served in the Pacific, providing vital intelligence by interrogating prisoners, translating documents and risking their lives in courageous efforts to persuade enemy soldiers to surrender.
The war transformed Sacramento from a small town into a major city, and some of its veterans describe what they saw and experienced on their return home. One, who was briefly city mayor, also recalls fighting in the Battle of the Bulge; another tells of his experience as a B-17 tail gunner during the costly raid on the German city of Schweinfurt. One family from Sacramento, living in the Philippines at the start of the war, was imprisoned with other Allied civilians in Manila's harsh Santo Tomas Internment Camp. An unpublished memoir by one member describes their trying captivity.
Men from Luverne, Minn., served in most theaters of the war, starting with an assault landing in North Africa. The town was chosen for inclusion because it was the home of a very articulate Army fighter pilot who contributed considerable testimony to the book, and also so Ward and Burns could draw on the vivid weekly columns of a local newspaper editor. These colorful and perceptive pieces, many reproduced here, are reinforced by the oral recollections of another Luverne citizen who grew up in that city during that era. They clearly show how the war affected this small farming community and, without really changing the town itself, made a lasting impact on its citizens, both military and civilian.
Prewar Waterbury, Conn., was the center of the American brass industry, a tough industrial town of about 100,000 inhabitants, just coming out of the Depression. Its largely immigrant population of skilled craftsmen was exactly what was needed for the new defense industries that would transform Waterbury into a booming manufacturing center producing a great variety of vital military equipment. It was included in The War primarily to provide geographical balance to the three cities in California, Minnesota and Alabama, but also because of the richness of experience of its veterans.
Among these was a young replacement rifleman pinned down for months at Anzio and who, unfortunately, failed to survive the breakout from the beachhead. His letters home from Anzio, excerpted here, had concealed from his family the harsh circumstances in which he struggled. Elsewhere, a young naval officer was wounded as a beachmaster in the Normandy assault but recovered in time to take part in the unopposed landing on Okinawa. Still other testimony, by a Jewish medic in Europe, describes how he prepared to hide his identifying dog tags during the Battle of the Bulge and his later revulsion and anger when he saw the stark horror of German concentration camps.
Back in Waterbury, families looked for letters from overseas, or grieved for their dead, but the city was booming, filled with a huge influx of war workers. The many new factories ran three shifts around the clock, and bars, restaurants and theaters flourished. Yet all this would disappear after the war's end. The host of workers departed, the brass industry declined, the population returned to prewar levels and Waterbury simply resumed its previous existence.
The last city discussed in the book, Mobile, Ala., a small southern port, went through the same sort of transformation into a large, crowded "wartown" that other communities throughout the country experienced. Two female residents describe the changes, the social and racial tensions, the rationing, scrap drives and bond sales, the revitalized shipyards, and the grief and worries that characterized Mobile throughout the war.
The city was chosen for inclusion by Ward and Burns primarily because it was the home of Eugene Sledge, whose classic published memoir about Marine combat in the Pacific is quoted at length in The War. Indeed, several marines from Mobile saw action on Guadalcanal, Saipan and Peleliu. Two of these were African-Americans, trained to fight but assigned, instead, to noncombat duties while having to put up with racial prejudice throughout their military service. Other men from Mobile fought in Europe, including one taken prisoner in Germany. Still another young soldier, captured in the Philippines, survived the infamous Bataan Death March and punishing years of slave labor to return home to a family that had never known whether he was alive or dead.
Ward has skillfully interwoven all of these experiences of change, personal loss, triumphs, defeats and emotions into a fascinating and riveting narrative. Even more compelling than his moving account are the nearly 400 photographs that accompany the text and accent his description. Especially evocative of war's personal toll are the many stark images of dead soldiers, Japanese and German as well as American. They lie stiffly on landing beaches, battlefields and mountainsides, and in ditches, jungles, villages and field hospitals. One comes away with an overwhelming feeling of sadness for the deaths of so many fine young men, with gratitude for their sacrifices and with deep sympathy for their anguished loved ones.
By Col. Stanley L. Falk
COL. STANLEY L. FALK, AUS Ret., Ph.D., is a military historian and author of Bataan: The March of Death and other books on World War II in the Pacific.…