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Note: I wrote this post in May 2010 after viewing the final episode of HBO’s “The Pacific” miniseries. I think I meant to work on it more and then post it a bit later, but since it’s now the end of the year and I am just now posting it, clearly it fell by the wayside. Previous posts on the series can be found here and here.
The final episode of HBO’s original miniseries “The Pacific” aired last night in Taiwan. As I have written about a couple of times previously here at Facing China, I’ve been doing some reading related to the series and the World War II in the Pacific. My final selection related to HBO’s The Pacific was the new book about the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb attack, Charles Pellegrino’s The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back. But before I get into the book at all, let’s discuss The Pacific, shall we?
I enjoyed the series. It had big shoes to fill, though. I would say that if The Pacific had come out 10 years ago in place of Band of Brothers, people would be gushing about it, me included. But since it had so much to live up to, I must reluctantly admit (I already admitted that as a U.S. Marine myself, I am biased) that in my opinion Band of Brothers is the superior series. Why? I am not completely sure…perhaps it was because Band of Brothers focused on a smaller “scene” in the European theater of war, as compared to the far-ranging American effort across virtually the entire vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I think that as a result The Pacific was a bit disjointed, it didn’t flow as smoothly as Band of Brothers did. Then there was the characters – none of the actors in The Pacific really excelled and stuck with me the way certain characters did in Band of Brothers, like the crazy-legs lieutenant that seemed invincible running across many a battlefield, inspiring the troops to greater accomplishments. Or Dick Winters, the ultra-charismatic officer who Band of Brothers followed throughout the war. His equivalent, Sledge’s company commander at Peleliu, “Ack Ack,” did not survive that island’s fighting.
I asked at the outset whether or not the producers of The Pacific would be able to do justice to the baseness and ferocity of the fighting in places like Peleliu and Okinawa as described in Eugene Sledge‘s book. I think they did a fair job in showing the incredibly demanding conditions the fighting took place in, like the never-ending rains in Okinawa that turned everything to a sea of mud. In his book, Sledge described one Okinawan vista this way:
It was the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed. As far as I could see, an area that previously had been a low grassy valley with a picturesque stream meandering through it was a middy, repulsive, open sore on the land. The place was choked with the putrefaction of death, decay, and destruction. In a shallow defilade to our right, between my gun pit and the railroad, lay about twenty dead Marines, each on a stretcher and covered to his ankles with a poncho – a commonplace, albeit tragic, scene to every veteran. Those bodies had been placed there to await transport to the rear for burial. At least those dead were covered from the torrents of rain that had made them miserable in life and from the swarms of flies that sought to hasten their decay. But as I looked about, I saw that other Marine dead couldn’t be tended properly. The whole area was pocked with shell craters and churned up by explosions. Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them.
In the end, it’s back to the old cliché – read the book. At one point in The Pacific, a Marine on Okinawa slips down the side of a hill of mud while trying simply to get from one place to another. He ends up in a deep puddle of maggotty mud-water along with a rotting corpse or two. While it is disgusting by any measure on the screen, here’s how he described the same events in the book:
My buddy rose, took one step down the ridge, slipped, and fell. He slid on his belly all the way to the bottom, like a turtle sliding off a log. I reached the bottom to see him stand erect with his arms partially extended and look down at his chest and belt with an mixed expression of horror, revulsion, and disbelief. He was, of course, muddy from the slide. But that was the least of it. White, fat maggots tumbled and rolled off his cartridge belt, pockets, and folds of his dungaree jacket and trousers. I picked up a stick and handed him another. Together we scraped the vile insect larvae off his reeking dungarees.
I’d certainly recommend The Pacific as a good series to watch about World War II in the Pacific from the U.S. point of view. It doesn’t tell the whole story, but how could it? Four years of fighting can hardly be compressed into under 10 hours of television. Nice effort – 4 of 5 stars.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, I also wanted to talk about the book The Last Train from Hiroshima. First, it’s important to note at the outset that the book is controversial because of problems with key sources of information the author used in researching the book. In fact, because of these source problems, the publisher pulled the book from further sales earlier this year and the author is re-writing the book without the tainted sources. Oh yeah, the sources scandal also raised questions about the author’s academic credentials, and it turns out that the PhD he claimed wasn’t real. Due to all these problems, Last Train may not have been the best book to choose in retrospect, but in my own defense, I bought it soon after it was released, prior to all these skeletons coming out of the closet. I decided to read it to tie in with World War II‘s “endgame” – nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and a few days later, Japanese capitulation.
The nuclear attacks on Japan are not a major event in The Pacific – they occur at the end of the 9th episode, and are not shown, only alluded to in a conversation about some fancy, new “super bombs” wiping out a couple Japanese cities. This is not to downplay their significance; it is simply because the attacks themselves are beyond the scope of the story. It is because of the atomic bombs used on Japan that the story ends as it does, with a U.S. victory on Okinawa, with no need to chance the estimated 1 million U.S. casualties that would be necessitated by a breach on mainland Japan itself.
Last Train talks about some of the poor souls who managed to survive the bombing in Hiroshima and thought that fleeing would be a good idea, to get out of the area. I agree, but a few who fled Hiroshima went to join family in Nagasaki and were there a few days hence when the second, more powerful nuclear bomb was detonated. This could called “really, really bad luck.” The book also asserts that the Hiroshima bomb was a “dud.” The yield was only about 10 kilotons (KT), even though it was supposed to be between 20 – 30KT. (The Nagasaki bomb‘s yield was in this latter range.) One Japanese survivor, a medical doctor who wore glasses to correct his eyesight, had his vision corrected by the blast. In what might be the ultimate deadpan, he said that he does not recommend weathering a nuclear attack as an alternative corrective vision surgery. (!!!)
I visited both Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier this year. I wanted to see both of the bombing sites and see what the cities that still exist there are like now. It’s remarkable, really – what I took away most from the visits was the resilience of mankind. To see the photos of the destruction the bombs caused and to stand at the hypocenter today and take a look around, to see all the bustle and urban metropolis still surrounding you there, is quite a testament to being able to bounce back from a really, really big setback.
A related book I also recently completed was John Lewis Gaddis’s newest book of history related to the aftermath of World War II, called The Cold War: A New History. I found the book to be quite interesting in how it ties so many different themes together, from the evolution of containment, detente, the creation of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War in Asia, the opening of China, and on and on. It was a nice way to bring me pretty much right back to the modern day, tracing out the results of World War II to (near) the present. Excellent book.