Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Pacific Miniseries, Part One review and other comments

I remember hearing about The Pacific a couple of years ago. I knew Hanks, Spielberg and Company would be involved and that alone would guarantee it would be an excellent miniseries. Captain Dale Dye, technical adviser to many films and a capable actor himself, provided an excellent blog during the filming and post-production of the film. The blog gave real insight into the preparations and training of the actors and stunt performers.

This began a keen interest in all things Pacific Theater. I knew vaguely about the Pacific Theater -- Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Battle of Midway Island -- but nothing in depth like my knowledge of the European Theater. I read the books that the miniseries is based on -- Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow and Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed... -- plus William Manchester's excellent Goodbye Darkness: a Memoir of the Pacific War. Patrick K. O'Donnell's compilation of Pacific veterans' oral histories Into the Rising Sun: World War II's Pacific Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat gave some interesting background to most of the major battles as well as the many atrocities committed by both sides. I had read James Bradley's two Pacific books a few years ago: Flyboys and Flags of our Fathers. I even read a fictional account of the invasion of Japan, called Death is Lighter Than A Feather by There are probably a couple of books I've forgotten about and there are plenty of fictional accounts out there, my favorite being The Thin Red Line by James Jones.

The common theme for many of these books is the brutality of the fighting. From the hostile climate of the Pacific island battlefields, to the vast Pacific Ocean, the war was not in a pleasant place to fight. Malaria, dysentery, various parasites, as well as snakes and insects probably caused as many casualties as Japanese bullets, bombs or bayonet.

The nature of the fighting itself was brutal. Japanese children were raised in a militaristic environment where failure brought shame to not only you, but your entire family. Dying for the Emperor was a high honor. Sadism to other prisoners and other ethnic groups deemed inferior (Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians etc.) were commonplace. Bradley talks about captured airmen being tortured and eaten (!) on Chichi Jima in his book Flyboys. The Rape of Nanking is another horrific chapter in Japanese military history. Bataan Death March. Hell Ships. Cabanatuan, Camp O'Donnell, Changi Prison, the Burmese-Thai Railroad...the list is nearly endless. American forces weren't immune to such abuses, and I'm hopeful that The Pacific shows these incidents (they were mentioned in both books). The lack of regard for the enemy combatant was not unique to the Pacific theater, but certainly not a mainstay of the European theater, as far as United States forces were concered. The Eastern Front of the ETO was a different story. The Soviets and Germans had no love or regard for each other.

We get a glimpse of the brutality in the first episode. After a long night on Guadalcanal, a group of Japanese emerges from the jungle. If my memory is correct, these were the remnants of a larger group either retreating from or attacking the key airfield on Guadalcanal (Henderson Field, which is still the airport's name today). The Marine combat unit (I think a heavy weapons platoon, but I'm going to have to double check) set an ambush at Alligator Creek and massacred these forces (battalion sized) during the night. These few soldiers emerge and are instantly cut down by the platoon, except for one lone soldier. The Marines toy with this crazed soldier, shooting his arm and shoulder, never going for the kill shot. He screams at the Marines to kill him, and most still toy with him. He is finally put out of his misery by our central character for that episode (picture above), but not without his fellow Marines admonishing him for ruining their fun.

I've read where this macabre sense of humor was one coping mechanism used by soldiers and Marines -- albeit subconsciously -- to keep their sanity. That certainly was evident in this scene, as they laughed at the hapless and deranged soldier. Their time on Guadalcanal will only get worse, as supplies grow short due to Japanese naval blockades and air raids.

The opening scene was of Eugene Sledge getting examined by his father, a prominent physician in Mobile, Alabama. Sledge is the second character that will prominently be seen in Pelielu and Okinawa. It is shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the country is in a fever pitch to get back at those dastardly Japanese. Like many of his friends, Eugene wants to join the Marines as soon as possible. When his father detects a heart murmur, he is devastated. He literally cries at the thought that he can't enlist and protect his country. It really got me thinking about our society and culture today. Granted, we did have a nice bump in enrollment after 9/11, but it has been nine years since that awful day. This current generation of kids whines about having to walk five minutes from the dorm to our library, for crying out loud. We are spoiled and pampered -- I am no exception to this.

The third character is eventual Medal of Honor winner John Basilone, who will be prominently featured in the second episode. He was a pre-war Marine, who joined in 1940, served in the Philippines before they fell in late 1941. They use his character, via a briefing of NCOs by Colonel Chesty Puller, to introduce the entire series with an overview of what would eventual unfold -- island hopping over a vast ocean. A great technique, and very effective even for someone who knows how the war was fought out there. We also meet his family and briefly see him as he lands as a reinforcement in Guadalcanal.

Needless to say, I can't wait for the second episode.

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