Posted by Jeff Pfeiffer
Ken Burns’ The War picks up again this Sunday with the first of its final three episodes. When we last saw the series, hopes of a quick end to the war in Europe were running high following the D-Day invasion, and the Allies’ rapid advance toward the German border.
But as we see in this episode, nothing can be assumed, certainly not victory against a desperate opponent in wartime. Overconfidence can lead to things becoming “FUBAR” — F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition — very quickly.
Now, your local PBS station may choose to run a version of this episode that edits the very quick mentions, early in the show, of what the “Fs” in FUBAR and SNAFU (Situation Normal — All F***ed Up) stand for. This fear of language was one of the controversies surrounding The War — controversy which strangely didn’t include, as Burns shrewdly points out, any shock over or desire to edit out the scenes of incredible violence, and the “dead bodies stacked up like cordwood.”
But things do indeed become f***ed up in late 1944, and in this episode, we see that a lot of it stems from inept military brass trying to push their troops too far too fast, or getting them to fight and lose all in campaigns of no strategic value.
We hear an overconfident General Eisenhower, with shades of the infamous “mission accomplished” statement to come from another commander 60 years later, state that the war will be over by Christmas.
Perhaps in order to achieve that goal, and to hasten the advance into Germany, General Bernard Montgomery planned Operation Market Garden, which would drop Allied paratroopers into occupied Holland, where they were to seize and hold bridges so Allied armor could race up them as a short cut into the Nazi homeland.
Unfortunately, we see that the British troops in this operation get slowed down by excited Dutch citizens who flock out to welcome them. And to make matters totally FUBAR, a copy of the Market Garden plan carried by an Allied officer when his glider plane crashed was now in German hands. Nothing worse than an opponent knowing your entire playbook. Several men are forced to surrender, and others are trapped behind enemy lines, fighting for survival, without heavy weapons and under constant shelling by the Germans.
We also find out that things are getting f’d up in the Pacific, too. With Americans readying to invade the Philippines two months ahead of schedule, General MacArthur decides that he wants a Japanese airbase on the island of Peleliu taken. It comes at a great cost, a lot of which we see in horrific combat footage, and more of which we can simply imagine in the mind’s eye in frightening detail thanks to the acute diary-keeping of Eugene Sledge, a Marine involved in the fighting. In some of the most powerful narration in this series, Sledge’s words take up a considerable amount of the coverage of this battle — no scriptwriter could have described it better. Among the more surreal images is when Sledge describes how his daily patrols would pass certain enemy corpses; each day that corpse would be in a further-along state of decay, “some biological clock marking the inexorable passage of time,” in Sledge’s frighteningly poetic words. “On each occasion my company passed such a landmark, we were fewer in number.”
Sledge also describes an extremely disturbing account of a Marine attempting to extract the gold teeth from the mouth of a still-living Japanese casualty, the man’s knife point slipping and slicing the victim’s cheeks. “I shouted, ‘Put that man out of his misery,’” says Sledge. “All I got for an answer was a cussing out.”
And we see that all the Marines on Peleliu get for their actions is a tragic decrease in their number for a tactically unimportant piece of land.
Back in Europe, we are taken deep into the eerie Hurtgen Forest, a wooded nightmare of a combat zone so dank, deep and dark that its description makes us easily see how all of the frightening fairy tales of Europe, with their monstrous denizens of the woods, came to be. In fact, we hear of one general recalling that, “upon entering it, you want to drop things behind you to mark your path, as Hansel and Gretel did with their bread crumbs.”
Tom Galloway, who fought in those woods, explains in the episode, “[It] was the worst. And you haven’t heard much about it because it was just a mess-up. There was no reason to go through the forest, but the generals kept wanting to go through it. And you’d put a division in there and chew it up. And they’d pull it out and put another division in and chew it up. The man I replaced got shot. And it just wasn’t too good to think what happened to him. But then you’ve replaced him.”
Toward episode’s end, Galloway finally gets to leave Hurtgen when he and his comrades are sent down to a little-known area called the Ardennes Forest for a little rest and recovery, since not much was expected to happen down there. Another plan gone FUBAR. As we will see in the next episode, Galloway and many others find themselves — caught off-guard and ill-equipped for the worst winter in memory — in the middle of one of Hitler’s final, and largest, gambits to win on the Western front.
Hurtgen, Germany, December 1944: Credit: National Archives