The War: Too Much, Too Long?
Was Ken Burns’s War Documentary On Target?
Views of Five Who Lived Through WWII as ChildrenLast updated Wednesday October 24th, 2007
Under this umbrella are the accounts of five septuagenarian writers - old Floridians today who were children during World War II. They were all too young to go to battle, but not too young to understand some of what was happening in a chaotic world.
When Ken Burns’s documentary about America’s involvement in that war aired recently, it seemed only natural to try to learn what they think about that seven-part series as well as and how their juvenile lives were woven into the fabric of the war. All are former newspaper reporters who worked at one time or another for the Tampa Tribune or Tampa Times.
In the following order, here are their thoughts about Burns’s The War, and their personal remembrances.
A Lad In A Family Bomb Shelter
By AL HUTCHISON
My wife and I were glad when the Ken Burns series on World War II finally was over. It wasn’t that Jackie and I didn’t find it compelling viewing (because we certainly did), but seven nights of it was about as much as we could take, given all the close-up horrors, the death and destruction and the examples of man’s unbelievable inhumanity to man that the series illuminated with so much graphic footage.
And yet we were totally fascinated. I found it especially informative because, having grown up in Scotland, I hadn’t known nearly enough about the war in the Pacific. I was five when Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939, and that attack had an immediate and lasting effect on our lives.
My brother, 14 years my senior, joined the Royal Air Force right out of high school and, as soon as he could, my father (a ship captain who’d “come ashore”) went back to sea. The British Admiralty told him he was too old - he was 47 when war was declared - for active duty, but he didn’t want a desk job so he made his way across the Atlantic and became the skipper of an American Liberty ship, leaving my mother to run the family business and to look after my sister and me.
In 1940, my home city (Dundee, a shipbuilding and industrial center on the Firth of Tay) was the target of German bombers, and I spent quite a lot of time in air raid shelters. We had a three-family shelter in our back yard, plus there were shelters in what had been the gardens at the school my sister and I attended. We wore gas masks and listened intently for the “all clear” siren. One night a bomb fell not far from our house, and on other occasions my sister and I had to step around bomb craters on our walks to and from school. (Later, the Germans no longer frightened us; I once heard a low-flying Luftwaffe bomber approaching and threw a rock at it, in broad daylight. Yes, I missed, but I was told the plane crashed anyway because presumably it was already doomed by the time I heard it.)
The United States had not yet joined the war, and we were so attentive to the conflict in Europe that I have no memory of ever hearing about Pearl Harbor until after I came to the United States in 1946. And, much later, although by then I’d heard of all the big battles in the Pacific, I could not have told you where they all fit into the big picture. Now, thanks to Ken Burns, I think I could pass a test on that subject. Also,while I’ve always felt that it wasn’t necessary to drop the atom bombs on Japan, I’m very close now to changing my mind. However, I still regret that the United States is the only country to ever use nuclear weapons in combat.
For Jackie and me, there were several important highlights to the Ken Burns project, including the one man’s observation that "without evil we wouldn’t need God" and that because of evil "we had to construct religions." I was also very much drawn to the remarks of the man Sledge who, once safely home, objected to how the folks he met would not differentiate between those veterans who had actually seen the horrors of combat and those who may have held a desk job throughout the war. We are always being encouraged to salute our veterans, and that’s fair enough, but can’t we acknowledge that some of them were far more heroic and deserving of our applause than others?. The too-generic “Support Our Troops” slogan perhaps should be changed to “Support Our Troops Who Are In Harm’s Way.”
Similarly, there was the woman who survived that horrible childhood imprisonment in Manila and who, back home in Sacramento, discovered her friends really weren’t interested in hearing about her and her family’s plight; they’d rather tell her about the terrible ordeal of rationing they had to endure at home.
Was this series as good as the one on the Civil War? I’d argue (but not vehemently) that it was, despite the absence of a memorable signature song such as Jay Ungar’s "Ashokan Farewell." The two parts that stood out for me were the up-close combat photography (particularly the newsreel-type that wasn’t available at the time of the Civil War) and the incredible, unselfish heroism of the medics, many of whom were conscientious objectors. It was also instructive, to me at least, to see how quickly America’s factories switched over to producing aircraft and tanks and other wartime necessities on a massive scale. There’s been no comparable shift in priorities or similar call for consumer sacrifices with the current war.
Yes, the series left out huge chunks of the conflict. There was virtually nothing, for example, about the dangerous North Atlantic and Murmansk convoys that put my father very much in harm’s way for several years. But Burns couldn’t do everything, and, as he said, he wanted to also focus on the folks left behind.
At the end, I was left to wonder how my life would have changed had my family enjoyed a homecoming like the ones shown by Burns and to try to imagine what my brother’s return would have been like. As it was, the last time I saw my brother was in 1942 when he and his pilot, Martin Smith, flew low over our house in Dundee and Richard and I were able to exchange a fleeting wave. A week or so afterwards, their Beaufighter ditched in the North Sea (it was being pursued by a German ME-109) and after three days on a raft, without food or water, they drifted ashore in Norway and were captured by the Germans.
After enduring almost three years in a German prison camp, Richard died just weeks before the war in Europe was over. The question quietly haunts my mind: Would my family have still come to the United States the next year, or ever? I don’t know and I can’t know. It’s an imponderable. And so I feel a certain kinship with all these American parents and siblings whose sons didn’t return. They’ll never know how their lives would have turned out.
I think the Burns series was important, not necessarily for those who fought and survived the war but for the rest of us, who might easily forget just what World War II was all about and how horrible it was. And it showed how strong political leadership was almost taken for granted back then. Where is it today? Did George W. Bush watch this series? If so, was he impressed by FDR’s eloquence? Did he learn anything from watching it? We’ll probably never know.
My biggest concerns are that today’s younger generation probably didn’t watch the series on PBS and that history is not being properly emphasized in our public schools so that our grandchildren may grow up with no appreciation whatsoever for the tremendous sacrifices that were made on their behalf.
‘Ken Burns Moments’
An Epic And A Gem
By BOB TURNER
All of us who lived through World War II but were too young to fight in it have experienced what might be called “Ken Burns moments.”
My first such moment came in 1934 or 1935, when my father came home with the afternoon paper and said, “We’re going to have trouble with that man.” He was talking about a story on Page One describing the latest warlike threat from Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
In 1937 and possibly as late as 1940 in Tampa, you could see Japanese freighters loaded with scrap iron at the Blocks terminal on Seddon Island. The ship’s flag - a red sun on a white background - clearly told where the valuable war materiel was headed - Japan.
It came home, so to speak, Dec. 7, 1941. That Sunday afternoon around 3 o’clock I was tossing a football around in my back yard with a junior high chum, Kevin Howell. Suddenly my mother came to the back-porch screen and yelled, “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!” The news had just come over the radio.
I had never heard of Pearl Harbor, didn’t know what it was or where it was.
Kevin never said a word but jumped on his bike which had been leaning against the garage and pedaled furiously home, around the corner on the next street. He may have realized the significance, because he had a relative in the National Guard.
Radio and newsreels, along with newspapers and news magazines, were how we kept up with the war on all fronts. Several good friends of mine were in the service and in combat, and I treasured one special friend’s “V-mail” letters in reply to my own.
A most pleasant sandy-haired youth named Billy Weston, who delivered The Tampa Daily Times on his Iver-Johnson bike, was killed in action, and it was an occasion of great sadness to learn of it in the paper.
The mother of a great friend came by our house one afternoon to relate tearfully that her son had been seriously wounded at the German border city of Aachen. Happily, he survived the war.
There were air-raid drills and wardens, blackouts and brownouts - and switching of night high-school football games to afternoons. You could literally hear the sounds of aircraft engines somewhere in the sky at any time of the day or night throughout the war.
Rationing seemed progressively more stringent, but thankfully it was parents rather than kids who had to contend with, and juggle, the ration books and coupons.
I recall that toward the end of the war, normal white bread took on a gray cast, and to me tasted more like cardboard than a slice of bread.
I grew up near Hillsborough High School, and the gym was the site of many basketball games played by outstanding collegians who were in various phases of flight training at Drew Field, site of today’s Tampa International Airport.
Similarly, the Hillsborough High School football field saw workouts by a number of service teams, including one which featured University of Nebraska All-American halfback Herman Rohrig.
It was in the school bleachers at a track meet in April 1945 where we learned that President Roosevelt had died.
One afternoon later that year I was walking home when a B-26 Marauder came roaring over so low that you could see the air-cooling holes around the .50 caliber gun barrels in the tail turret.
The plane was headed right toward Hillsborough High when the pilot zoomed and cleared the school by what seemed little to spare. I figured it was an HHS alumnus buzzing his alma mater, glad that he had made it through the war.
It all came to an end - for those of us at home - with papers blaring that the United States had dropped what turned out to be the first of two atomic bombs on Japan.
My father, a no-nonsense printer at the Tampa Morning Tribune, was skeptical at first that such a radical new weapon could exist, but it was indeed true.
Ken Burns’s series was an epic and a gem.
My Feelings About The War
By CHARLIE ROBINS
While watching Ken Burns’ documentary, “The War,” I frequently found myself comparing it unfavorably with his earlier series, “The Civil War.” The latter had an almost lyrical quality to the narrative, surprisingly so when you consider it was about a brutal struggle that sometimes pitted brother against brother, split families for generations, and played out against the ugly backdrop of the institution of slavery.
Even the most spectacular combat film footage from “The War” seemed to lack the impact of the eerily silent “still images in motion” technique Burns used to capture the tragic events of the Civil War, when photography was still in its infancy and combat photographers had not yet supplanted combat artists.
What’s more, I could find no definitive moment in the World War II documentary to rival the now well-known letter that a Union officer, Maj. Sullivan Ballou, wrote to his wife on the eve of the Battle of Bull Run:
“My dear Sarah.
“The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days -- perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more...”
It took several episodes of “The War” and quite a bit of reflection before I realized that the problem was not so much in anything Burns failed to bring to the series, but in what I failed to bring to it. I was viewing it partly as history and partly, I’m afraid, as theater.
World War II was something that happened when I was between the ages of 8 and 11, and thus didn’t really happen to me. It only played in the background, probably because it had so little impact on the safety and security of my own family. My father had served in France in the first war and was too old for the second. My brothers didn’t become old enough to join the service until the final year of the war, and served in places no more dangerous than Fort Benning and Honolulu.
Even my large extended family of uncles and cousins came to no great harm, even though one had two ships torpedoed from under him on the Murmansk run, and another flew numerous bombing raids over Germany.
Occasionally the war insinuated itself into my comfortable life in memorable but totally unthreatening ways. I vividly recall sitting on my aunt’s front porch on Ocean View Beach in Virginia one summer evening, watching the flames from a cargo ship that apparently had been torpedoed before it even reached the open Atlantic waters beyond Chesapeake Bay. From that distance, of course, I saw no burned or mutilated bodies or drowning men thrashing desperately in the water, although this surly may have been the case.
I did come face-to-face with the enemy that same summer, but he was a German prisoner of war, one of a dozen or so who were clearing weeds next to the Granby St. streetcar tracks in Norfolk, under guard of Navy shore patrolmen. The streetcar I was riding had stopped to pick up some passengers, and when the German looked up and smiled at me, his face only a few feet from my own, I instinctively leaned away from the window in fear. He apparently noticed, because he laughed and shook his head, then returned to chopping weeds with a hoe. So much for my self-image, carefully crafted over many a movie matinee, as a young John Wayne who didn’t know the meaning of fear.
During the time we lived near Atlanta, in 1943 and 1944, my buddies and I spent many afternoons on a red clay bluff that overlooked what was then called Candler Field, observing the military planes that flew in and out.
One day we watched in utter amazement as an Army C-47 flew incredibly low over the field, trailing a long rope and hook. It latched onto a strange wire rig that looked like my mother’s backyard clothesline, and snatched up a big plywood glider that was tethered to it. For a few heart-stopping moments the C-47 frantically gunned its engines to avoid stalling, but eventually regained altitude and vanished with the glider in tow.
It was all very exciting to watch from the safety of the ground. However, even our fertile young imaginations could not conjure up the terror that must have been felt by the infantrymen who eventually landed, and very often crashed and died, behind enemy lines in those flimsy craft.
In short, I was merely a spectator back then, and I was still reacting as a spectator these many years later, making comparisons and judgments on two very different documentaries about two very different wars.
As the series wound down, though, I began to see that “still pictures in motion” simply couldn’t convey the frenzied movement that was World War II. It was a war that raced to the roar of aircraft engines and the clatter of tank treads, not to the clump of horses’ hooves and the creak of wagon wheels.
I still feel a twinge of emotion when I listen to Major Ballou’s poignant letter to Sarah on the soundtrack CD from the “Civil War,” but I found myself equally moved by the much less literary letters of the young World War II GI from Waterbury, Conn. He endured the prolonged terrors of the beachhead at Anzio and the first brutal battles in the drive for Rome, but when he wrote home he always sounded like a kid away at summer camp. Everything was all right, he was doing just fine, the food was great, he assured his mom so she wouldn’t worry too much. He repeated this again and again, until there were no more letters, only the dreaded telegram. Even then she refused to believe he was never coming home again, and searched for his face in every newspaper photo or newsreel about the war.
The Civil War, I’ve concluded, is history. In a very real sense, World War II isn’t, and won’t be as long as those who fought it and did come home are still with us.
Memories of an Army Brat
By DUANE BRADFORD
It was the husky sounds of the truck engines that hooked me.
When the first of the seven-part Ken Burns film series, The War, began rolling with the somber music in the background on Public Broadcasting recently, I wondered if my wife, Ellen, and I would be able to endure the whole trip. I think she did not.
Minutes into the introduction of the story, I began to hear sounds of six-and-a-half decades ago. They were clearly the engines of all those olive green canvas-top trucks of the 34th Division, 168th Infantry, Iowa National Guard, roaring to life. The noises were in my head. And I could also clearly see, in the same mind’s eye, all of the soldiers waving to their families and friends from the trucks as the convoy formed and headed south on Pearl Street to the Louisiana Maneuvers from their home in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was a summer morning in 1941.
One of the soldiers was my dad, Capt. Ivan E. Bradford. Clues everywhere had told our family that this would not be a happy day. We knew President Roosevelt had “federalized” the National Guard earlier that February. We had listened to the tinny sounding, grim radio reports from William L. Shirer coming from Berlin. I quickly memorized a new word: blitzkrieg. CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow let us hear the drama of London’s wailing air raid sirens, and he told us Hitler pledged to annihilate London if war came. I was only 11 years old at the time, but even I sensed that day that my father might never return to our home. Although he survived the conflict, he didn’t return home. And shortly after he left, his family followed him south - also never to return to our neighborhood friends and the only home I’d ever known.
A combat veteran of the U.S. Seventh Engineers during World War I, dad was later deemed “over-age in grade” (a captain at 45) to lead his infantry company into another war. So after slogging through the mud of Camps Beauregard and Claiborne, Louisiana, he helped administer the maneuvers there as his old unit headed for Africa and the Mediterranean war zone.
The Burns epic was, to me, a vital and skillfully crafted documentary about one of the world’s ugliest man-made cataclysms. Words had certainly attempted to describe man’s ability to inflict horrors upon his fellow man, but the stacks of bodies in the images told much more. Burns had tried - and largely succeeded - in showing how America’s portion of World War II affected the lives of Americans in four cities - Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; and Waterbury, Connecticut. Through interviews and vivid images, many of them never seen by the public, he had etched indelible impressions into viewers’ minds about those horrors of war (and some sad human rights transgressions by our nation) that words, standing alone, failed to do.
Critics of the length of the documentary and the gory detail repeatedly displayed may have missed the point of the project. It was not created to glorify war or to pump up generals for political futures. It was designed to educate those who will lead this nation some day about just what it means to go to war. In my view, this documentary, accompanied by the companion text, should be a required high school course, with regular discussions and a blue book test at the end of the semester. How many young persons today can fathom, for example, that a marine who was badly burned in a Pacific campaign would ask his friend to kill him because he could bear the pain no longer? And how many would believe that the friend complied with the wishes of his wounded comrade - and then have courage to tell an interviewer about it?
If Burns had come to our new wartime home in Lafayette, Louisiana, to talk to people there, he would likely have found the Acadian French community was not as shocked about the Pearl Harbor attack as were some other parts of the nation. Louisianans had been inoculated by the presence of more than a half million soldiers tromping and sloshing everywhere on war prep maneuvers there - the largest war “games” ever held by U.S. troops. The maneuvers disclosed how ill-prepared we were for a war.
On Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, our school classes listened in dead silence to the President ask Congress for a declaration of war. I thereafter soaked up everything I could find that would tell me more. That’s what Army Brats do in such times. I learned the frightening news of Japanese forces landing in the Aleutian Islands. That seemed to be a threat to my father, who then was at McChord Field in Tacoma, Washington. I literally inhaled the newspaper dispatches of Richard Tregaskis’s Guadalcanal Diary. While his accounts told of many horrors the troops endured in a long campaign, there were no pictures of dead soldiers. When Americans were finally allowed by their government to see those pictures, you could feel the public resolve stiffen. Likewise, when Burns repeatedly showed some rare Signal Corps footage of those scenes the other night, generations of younger viewers were at least exposed to a new sense of the extreme costs of war.
In 1943, Tampa’s Drew Field became my father’s new military home at the Army Signal Corps Aircraft Warning Unit Training Center there. While Burns did not touch too much on what teenagers were doing during those war years, my life in my new Tampa home was busy building model warplanes of every description to suspend on the ceiling of my room. Our backyard was located near the base, and I learned to identify all of the aircraft coming and going - some of them low enough to see the pilot. Many of these were training flights that ended in a crash. This resulted in a slogan created by flight crews, “A plane a day in Tampa Bay.”
Like many teenagers, I became a defense stamp entrepreneur, brushing black paint over the top half of automobile headlight lenses at 10 cents a pop there in the parking lot of the A&P on Grand Central. This was designed to reduce the ability of German submariners in the Gulf of Mexico to see city outlines at night. I also collected flattened tin cans, aluminum and newspapers for recycling. All of this kept me from thinking too much about my brother somewhere in England or France in an Air Corps fighter squadron, and of my brother-in-law with a B-17 crew flying missions over Germany or a cousin freezing in Bastogne where he learned his mother had died.
It was an exhausting but informative ride through all of the Burns series. The good music background, though, made the road smoother - especially the haunting theme of American Anthem as sung by Norah Jones.
Did any of our national politicians, most of whom were not born when this conflict began, even watch this documentary? From what I see as the leadership quotient of the pack, I don’t think I want to know the answer. For our ignorance of that grim history could condemn our progeny to a similar nightmare.
The View From Thonotosassa
By LELAND HAWES, JR.
I found Ken Burns’s PBS series engrossing - and at times emotionally draining. I learned numerous facets of World War II that escaped me as a youngster, even though I read newspaper accounts avidly and listened to radio reports regularly.
Footage of the Bataan Death March, the frustrating struggle on Guadalcanal and the slaughter on Anzio Beach were among the grim scenes brought home anew.
And The War stimulated personal memories...
I put out an “extra” edition of my weekly newspaper, The Flint Lake Diver, on that Sunday afternoon in 1941 when I heard the radio broadcast that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Since only one hand-written copy was produced and tied to our front gate in the rural citrus community of Thonotosassa, Florida, I doubt if anybody else saw it.
But war news became a staple in the mimeographed paper I was publishing at the age of 12. For there were regular reports on the enlistments, drafting and transfers of the young men in the area. And Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito furnished plenty of fodder for my amateurish cartooning efforts.
With thousands of Army Air Corps personnel training in the Tampa area at MacDill and Drew fields, the war was a daily presence not only on the streets of Tampa but also in the surrounding skies.
An elevated aircraft spotter center took shape on a main road near Thonotosassa, where volunteers checked the profiles of visible planes to see whether they were friend or foe.
Troops from Drew Field bivouacked in a wooded tract adjacent to our house for a week, probably in 1943. When they departed, they covered over most of the foxholes from their mock maneuvers. But a neighborhood friend and I were delighted to discover one secluded dugout which enabled us to “play war” in ensuing months.
Of course, the war became deadly serious when close relatives departed for dangerous overseas assignments (a first cousin was killed in the Battle of the Bulge).
My father, a veteran of World War I, was too old for this one, and his occupation - raising oranges and grapefruit - was considered essential to the war effort. He had to rely on older employees to cultivate the groves and pick the fruit. The war produced significant advances for the citrus industry, pushing canning processes and eventually citrus concentrate for overseas shipments.
In the later years of the war, my amateur journal, The Gator Growl, included contributed material from American Amateur Press Association (AAPA) members serving overseas - notably Jim Lamanna writing about crackers as a seasick remedy and E.H. “Gabby” Gabaree writing about characters he encountered in India and China. The association is a non-profit group of amateur writers, printers, editors and publishers who share their writings in monthly mailings.
I also turned out an issue of G.I.- A.J., devoted entirely to articles from other hobbyists in the military services seeking outlets at home for their censored articles.
AAPA member Helen Wesson led the “Ajay Hostesses” promoting correspondence from young women members to the numerous AAPA men in uniform. At least one marriage emerged from those letters and “V-mails” (an early version of photocopying).
Expectations were high that there would be a huge upsurge in activity once the war ended and a large portion of our membership returned. And monthly mailings did pick up considerably in 1946. But the veterans were soon swept up in college attendance through the G.I. Bill, marriage or civilian occupations.
As usual, the hobby turned cyclical, with activity taking on spurts followed by declines. And just a few years later, in 1950, more AAPA members left for military duty again - in the Korean “police action.”