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Chat about Ken Burns' World War II documentary with Bill Mayer

September 25, 2007

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Bill Mayer

In Tuesday's Journal-World, longtime editor and columnist Bill Mayer - a World War II veteran - reviews the new Ken Burns documentary about that war. He'll take questions Tuesday afternoon.

Moderator:

Hi folks! Bill is taking time out of his busy day to join us. Welcome to cyberspace, Bill!

Moderator:

(This is Joel Mathis, managing editor for convergence, by the way.)

Bill Mayer:

The more I see of "The War" the more I;m amazed at how much I misses growing up in that era. As Chuck Woodling remarked, watching these Ken Burns pieces are addictive. It's hard to turn away even from the more grim material.

I don't have a lot of answers but will tackle any questions anyone might have about the series and being a citizen of that period.

Moderator:

Bill, could you tell us a little bit about your military service during World War II?

Bill Mayer:

Enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943 because I didn't want to be drafted. They had a special early-in program. Got to finish high school, entered active duty in the summer of 1943, went through the usual training, got my wings and commission and joined my bomber crew in Casper, Wyoming. From there we went to England and flew missions out of Norwich England. I was blessed with a great crew, a tremendous pilot and a lot of luck.

jniccum:

What's your favorite movie about World War II?

Bill Mayer:

I guess it might be "12 O'Clock High" - about the Air Corps, of course -but there was also an early one, propagandistic, of course, titled "Bataan" where Robert Taylor and his pals got systematically wiped out and the film ended with Taylor behind a machine gun, sure to die, but blasting away. That got a lot of people fired up.

As for postwar, how could you top "The Best Years of Our Lives"?

But there were a lot of good ones, all, of course, aimed to picture Germans and Japanese as subhumans, which sometimes they performed like.

DennisAnderson:

Hi Bill.
What did you think about the segment last night about the bomber squads? What can you add to what that experience was like, battling fighters and flak? Where did you get the courage to go back up after that?

Bill Mayer:

The most amazing aspect of bomber flights were those heroes who had the guts to get into the ball turrets on B-17 and B-24 planes. You couldn't make it any more terrifying that what they faced, as the Sunday night piece on the turret guy showed. On B-24s, you have to cranked up and down after takeoff and before landing and when you lost hydraulics, it was a hand job. I'll never understand how our little 5-6 Mormon kid, Jay Francis, could do it time after time.

As for going up, the only prayer I ever said was to let me do my best, not let my plane mates down and prevent me from reacting badly out of cowardice. Scared. Hell, yes, but you did it because the others guys did it and expected you to.

We were favored with a lot of luck, believe me.

Moderator:

Bill: As far as bomber service, was it anything like depicted (satirically, of course) in"Catch 22," with the number of required missions increasing every time you'd met the old requirement?

Bill Mayer:

Truth is, that did happen now and then. When we got into combat, the total was 25 missions, then they hiked it to 30 and as the Germans began to fade, it went to 35. Consider that the average life of a flight crew was 14 missions and you can see how that must have set with us.

I talked to Bennie Stewart this morning, former Lawrence High teacher now 86, and he wound up with 35 missions in the summer of 1944. Wanna consider how lucky he and his people were to get that far? The first two or three trips you were caught up in the excitement and glamor. Then you began to mark them off on the wall like days in prison, hoping you'd beat 14, hit 25 and then go home.

But the real heroes were on the ground. Planes can't take any territory so the infantry people must.

trombeck:

Bill --

Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie (fictionalized) that you felt depicted World War II somewhat accurately?

Bill Mayer:

They tried to do it with "The Memphis Belle," the first plane, a B-17, to finish its 25-mission requirement and go home to boost morale and sell bonds. That was a tremendous feat, but in the film they had one of the guys trying to treat an wounded mate and encouraging him with digital magic tricks. At their altitude and 40 below, he'd have frozen in 30 seconds.

The Gregory Peck piece was probably as good as any. But it's like trying to do a movie that captures the newspaper business accurately. It almost never happens.

Bill Mayer:

They tried to do it with "The Memphis Belle," the first plane, a B-17, to finish its 25-mission requirement and go home to boost morale and sell bonds. That was a tremendous feat, but in the film they had one of the guys trying to treat an wounded mate and encouraging him with digital magic tricks. At their altitude and 40 below, he'd have frozen in 30 seconds.

The Gregory Peck piece was probably as good as any. But it's like trying to do a movie that captures the newspaper business accurately. It almost never happens.

Moderator:

Bill: As you may know, there's been some controversy over the Ken Burns documentary, about some perspectives being left out. Do you see anything missing?

Bill Mayer:

There's no perfect wave for a project this complete and massive and somebody or something is bound to be left out. There was controversy about the slighting of Latinos and that's legitimate. They did a tremendous job, and I think there was some re-editing to include that.

By the time the series is done, there will be all kinds of criticisms and yet I think overall it may prove to be the most complete and defining epic of World War II and I hope people accept it as such. It truly defines "the most cataclysmic" events of my time.

Moderator:

Coupla more questions. The U.S. is once again fighting, in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does the home front compare between now and the World War II era?

Bill Mayer:

The difference is day and night. In our day, the bad guys wore uniforms and such and could be identified and attacked as individuals and a nation. Everyone knew we had to win the war and gave us a carte blanche to do so. There were tremendous sacrifices with rationing, family relocations, and there is absolutely nothing like that today. While in service, I never had a single person give me hell about being a killer. How often do we hear critics of our guys now being hired guns?

America was as united between late 1941 and the end of 1945 the greatest it has been and may ever be. So much, good and bad, was shared. We don't have that today. For me, if I were king of America, I'd introduce universal military training, not the draft, tomorrow. Everyone upon turning 18 would owe a full year of active duty, men and women, in some category and then be in the reserves for five years. Sweden and Switzerland make it work and it would give us a threat of camaraderie and solidarity we don't come near having now.

No draft, UMT. But wanna guess how far that would go?

jniccum:

Do you think the World War II generation was indeed the "greatest generation" as Tom Brokaw proclaimed?

Bill Mayer:

Very close, if not actually because we have had so many heroic efforts before and since.

But there's a sidelight here to consider, the GI Bill that resulted to get the country going as it did. College educations for millions, home loans at low rates to boost building industries, vocational-'tech training and relief for guys looking for jobs. Bottom line, it all cost $14 billion, pocket change now. Further, a Kansan, Harry Colmery of the American Legion, devised and pushed it through. President Roosevelt at first was opposed, changed, and they got some Senator who was gong to block it drunk and get him out of town.

What resulted was probably the greatest piece of legislation in American history. So if our generation produced that, it may have been the greatest.

Moderator:

Thanks, Bill, for joining us today!

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