In “Pride of Our Nation,” the last episode of The War for this week (three more are to come next week), we see Americans’ hope begin to increase as the long-awaited invasion of France — D-Day — finally occurs.
As we all know from fictional accounts such as Saving Private Ryan, the disastrous American D-Day landing at Omaha Beach was the bloodiest day in U.S. history since the Civil War. Since we have seen so many histories of this battle, there is not an inordinate amount of time spent on it, but there are enough new angles to make an impact.
We meet one soldier who attacked the beach, along with his brother (in separate waves). He would later find out that his brother did not make it, and it is utterly heart-wrenching to hear him, in his interview today, his voice cracking, explain how “I would rather have come back without my arms and legs than without my brother.” He then goes on to tell of the 50-year span of nightmares he had, in which his young and vibrant brother is still around, dressed in his finest attire, as he always was, only to consistently and suddenly disappear.
There is also the terrible description, and some accompanying footage, of the aftermath of the invasion — the beach littered with dead bodies, with more washing ashore almost as quickly as the others are picked up by the Graves Registration detail.
The episode follows the troops as they make their way into the deceptively beautiful Normandy countryside (which correspondent Ernie Pyle describes as looking as lovely as Eastern Pennsylvania. “Someday,” he says, “I would love to cover war in a country that is as ugly as war itself”). There they encounter the infamous hedgerows that bog them down for months, where they must fight for every inch.
We see Quentin Aanenson of Luverne, a familiar face in this series, fly his first combat mission over the Normandy coast. And he can still describe in vivid detail the impact that raining death from the skies had upon him. “I could see my bullets just tearing into [the Germans]. That was my job. … I dealt with it fine. But when I got back to the base in Normandy and landed I got sick. I had to think about what I had done. Now that didn’t change my resolve. I went out and did it again. And again and again and again.”
In the Pacific theater, Ray Pittman of Mobile describes the surreal scene on Saipan, the first island upon which the Marines encountered Japanese civilians, where many of those civilians choose suicide over possible capture by the Americans. Sickening footage of women leaping from cliffs into the sea underscore this horror, with interpreters desperately trying to halt this madness that arose from the Japanese soldiers telling the people that the “barbaric” Americans would kill and eat them.
Back in Europe, Quentin Aanenson finally gets to see a happier sight from the vantage point of his fighter plane as he flies over a finally liberated Paris, with thousands of jubilant people jamming the streets around the arriving American soldiers. And his vivid memory of that event proves to be a highly inspiring and stirring way to leave the episode. “It was so thrilling and exciting,” he recalls. “I just enjoyed the thrill of seeing … [that] we are winning this war. The good guys are going to come out ahead.”
The coda to the episode is a reprise of the haunting “American Anthem” theme song that also capped off the first episode, an emotional end to a chronicle of one of the most emotional periods of the war. Unfortunately, the end wouldn’t come as quickly as most people had expected once Allied forces set foot in Europe, as we find out in the next episode, when many things go desperately wrong.