Tonight’s episode of The War, airing on PBS at 8pm ET/PT, covers the months from November 1943 up until June 1944, and is titled “A Deadly Calling.” It’s an apt title, coming from one veteran’s recollection of how he (and most others) came to accept their duty to kill in this now total war, where once they had subscribed to “Thou shalt not kill.”
It also describes how the American public came to realize just how deadly this calling was. Through the first two years of the war, even though the dreaded and heartbreaking telegrams to wives and mothers kept piling up, little was said, or shown, of how many American boys were dying on foreign soil. In late 1943, however, Life magazine published a striking photo of three dead soldiers lying in the surf at Buna, in the Pacific, one of the first times the average American saw war casualties of their own.
Ken Burns uses a quiet pan over that haunting photo, still very impactful after 60 years (and even to a generation that has, sadly, become all too familiar with seeing the direct impact of war), and the equally moving words that accompanied it in the magazine, beginning with “Here lie three Americans …” and which explains that it wants to show the “reality that lies behind the names on monuments in the leafy squares of busy American towns.” The camera lingers over the photos, much like the horrified readers of the time must have, except able to bring us even closer into the details of the contorted bodies driven into the sand and waves.
It’s a somber way to help detail the American mindset in the wake of such increasing visuals, a nation already tired of war, but knowing the end was a long way off. Although the Germans had been pushed out of North Africa, the invasion of France had yet to occur, and Japan had made it very clear that it would fight bitterly all the way back to its homeland, island by island.
Bringing home the horror even further was a film that the government had decided to show to the American public to finally give them some idea of what the soldiers were going through, clips of which we see in this episode. Called With the Marines at Tarawa, it was actual combat footage of the brutal fighting for the titular atoll in the Pacific. In full color, movie theater audiences received a burst of shock and intense hatred for the enemy as they saw all the gory details, notably more dead soldiers lying in the surf. Certainly nothing as romantic and heroic as a John Wayne war picture. Katharine Phillips of Mobile, looking back through the lens of history, explains the mindset then upon seeing that film, as everyone being determined to “kill the Japs.” Certainly a shocking sentiment by today’s standards, which she admits, but the general consensus of the time was to do anything to get the war over with as quickly as possible and end this deadly calling.
You can watch the entire short film With the Marines at Tarawa here to get some idea of its impact. Very harrowing.
The episode also chronicles the campaign against the Nazis in Italy (Italy had surrendered and joined the Allies, but the Germans maintained their stronghold in the country), notably the rough, seemingly endless battle at Monte Cassino that lasted throughout the winter and spring, and which also featured a historical casualty in addition to its incredible human carnage — we see cringe-inducing footage of the abbey of Monte Cassino, which had stood for over 1,400 years, leveled in an instant by Allied bombs under the mistaken belief that Germans were using it as a fortress. (Ironically, German soldiers ended up using the ruins as an effective defensive position.)
“Babe” Ciarlo, whom we met in the last episode, is still fighting in Italy, and gets caught up in the chaos of Anzio. His letters home continue, becoming all the more wrenching that we know his fate.
By the end of the time period covered in this episode, D-Day is very close, the Marines in the Pacific are battling their way toward Saipan, and Americans everywhere are bracing for an even greater — and deadlier — calling to come.