Posted by Jeff Pfeiffer
Ken Burns’ The War comes to an end tonight, and, unfortunately, the episode title — “A World Without War” — does not refer to the literal fact that our world has gone on without conflict. Rather, it references America coming to the exhilarating realization that four long years of living in a war climate — either in actual combat, or making sacrifices on the homefront — are over. After being in a “war” mindset for so long, it might take a little readjustment, but it is certainly a worthwhile and joyous one.
Right at the beginning, the episode realizes that there will indeed, probably never truly be a world without war, as we immediately see images of violence from the Holocaust — an SS soldier about to execute a Jew in front of a mass grave.
“There will always be evil,” says former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, one of the veterans we have come to know in the series. “Human beings are aggressive animals.”
Some of the truest evil ever visited on Earth is finally explored in more detail here. This is the first episode that spends some amount of time in addressing the Holocaust, and because of that, it almost feels as if we are discovering the Nazi camps for the first time much as the soldiers themselves did. And we see the nightmarish images, which never fail to shock.
The photos are powerful enough on their own; but we also get firsthand accounts of soldiers who were there, and who are still understandably affected by the nearly incomprehensible experience.
Paul Fussell, who was 19 at the time, barely holds back tears as he recalls the discoveries, and his, and the other soldiers’, realization that the war “was conducted in defense of some noble idea.”
Burnett Miller remembers how, in the soldiers’ efforts to help the victims by feeding them concentrated food, they inadvertently killed many of them because that food simply overwhelmed their systems.
Burnett was at Mauthausen in Austria, and another of his horrifically vivid descriptions is that of the sickening smell of death that wafted down from the death camp into the town.
“They could smell the camp in town,” he says, with barely concealed anger in his voice. “The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie.”
Dwain Luce of Mobile was at Ludwigslust, and he remembers forcing the German townspeople there to collect the bodies from that camp and give them proper burials.
“These people in this country who say it didn’t happen,” says Luce, “ it did happen; I saw it.”
The most powerful impact is made by Ray Leopold, a Jew who helped liberate camp victims in Hadamar, as well as survivors of hideous Nazi medical experiments. Leopold has not looked straight into the camera much during his time on this series, but at this point he looks ahead with rage.
“No apology will ever atone for what I saw,” he says.
Fresh horrors are also awaiting troops in the Pacific, who have one more obstacle to face before the homeland of Japan would be open before them: the island of Okinawa.
Eugene Sledge is there, prepared again to enter what he calls “the abyss” in his captivating diary. But at first no resistance is met, and we see rare color footage of Marines walking through the rather lovely Okinawa countryside, quite a bit different from the previous jungle campaigns. Sledge notes this beauty, and finds it hard to believe that a war will be fought there.
And a war is fought there — the worst battle of the Pacific for America, which wears on into June 1945. Even in May, when word of Germany’s surrender reaches the troops in the Pacific, Sledge recalls, “No one cared much. Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon.”
After the bloodbath on Okinawa, with thousands of Marines, Japanese soldiers and civilians losing their lives, more terrible losses seem inevitable with an invasion of Japan.
But a new weapon is being delivered to the island of Tinian by the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Among its crew is Maurice Bell of Mobile. After delivering the unknown cargo, the ship makes its way toward the Philippines, but is torpedoed and goes down. And so begins one of the most famous and horrific stories of the war. With many crewmen, including Bell, stranded in the water for days, delirium and dehydration begins setting in. But the worst threat is the arrival of the sharks. Bell describes the terror of sharks darting around him, taking men who were right next to him, seeing them go down and being replaced with red water.
As to why he survived, Bell manages to find some dark humor: “I like to say I was too sour for the sharks to eat.”
The package delivered to Tinian, of course, is the atomic bomb. President Truman, the new president in the wake of FDR’s death, approves its use, and on August 6 the city of Hiroshima experiences devastation like nothing else in history — 40,000 people obliterated, 100,000 more dead of burns and radiation in the next few days, and another 100,000 to succumb to radiation poisoning over the next five years. Russia declares war on Japan, and this, coupled with a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki, finally forces Japan’s surrender.
While questions over the use of the bombs remain, Katharine Phillips of Mobile says that “you’ll never convince anyone of our generation” that the atomic bomb was not necessary. “We just had to get that war over with.”
And the war is over with, and the episode closes with jubilant moments of celebration, and returning soldiers. Bing Crosby’s “It’s Been a Long Time” plays over scenes of excited lovers — and even men and women who don’t know each other — embracing in kisses. Katharine Phillips humorously recalls how she and a girlfriend, working at a Red Cross canteen, were chased around by returning Marines desperate for their first kiss from an American girl in a long time.
The vast amount of dead are not forgotten. Heartbreaking images of lines of American flag-draped coffins go by, and we learn of Babe Ciarlo’s body finally making it home.
But the series ends on a note of life. We see home movies from December 1945, with the veterans spending their first Christmas home in many years, happily throwing snowballs and playing with their families. We hear a serene holiday wish for peace from Al McIntosh, the columnist from the Rock County Star-Herald from whom we’ve heard so much throughout the series. And we leave with images of the young faces of a new generation being brought into the world, the Baby Boomers to come, who will live in a world made safer by the actions of their parents.
The episode, and the series, finishes with a collage of photographs of veterans and personalities from the series, including Ken Burns’ father, Robert, who is in the last photograph you’ll see. A fitting personal touch for Burns, who has completed an epic series that yet feels personal to all of us as well.
V-J Day: Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Magazine