Archive for Friday, September 28, 2007

Mayer: Burns film preserves heroism, horror of WWII

September 28, 2007


Editor's note: Bill Mayer is the contributing editor for the Journal-World. He saw combat as a 20-year-old B-24 navigator with the Army Air Corps in the final five months of World War II in Europe. His bomber crew was based in Norwich, England. This is the second in a series of three articles on Mayer's recollections about World War II.

A major reason filmmaker Ken Burns decided to produce "The War" was that more than 40 percent of a high school graduating class he spoke to thought the United States had fought with the Germans against the Russians in World War II.

Kansas University professor Jan Kozma knows how Burns felt.

Kozma told her Italian Civilization class it might be worth watching the public television series, after none of her 48 students could tell her who fought - on either side. Questioned, one student opined, "That's when the U.S. fought in Viet Nam."

Burns' compelling epic startles citizens and historians who thought they understood what happened here and abroad during the war. It's a must-see for those who have no concept of how difficult those times were - and how close and how often America and its Allies came to defeat and disaster.

Burns in defining the production also noted that some 1,000 World War II veterans are dying every day and had to be tapped for their knowledge before it was too late. Rather than a grandiose spectacle, co-producer Lynn Novick chose to talk to "little people" - both civilians and war veterans - with focus on Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Luverne, Minn.

The first four installments of the 15-hour piece ended Wednesday. It will resume Sunday night, with the wrapup on Tuesday on local TV channels 7 and 11.

While 16 million Americans served in the war, more than 407,000 were killed, with 10 times that number wounded or disabled. Locally, Kansas University had more than 8,000 affiliates in service, and 277 of them died. At least 125 Douglas County citizens gave their lives.

Then there is this glaring statistic that demands special reverence in view of the shameful way America treated so many Japanese citizens, African Americans, American Indians and Hispanics: More than 550 Haskell Institute students, former students and alumni were killed in service.

As arrangements to produce "The War" began, an overriding theme developed. It jumps at you from the TV screen: "There are no ordinary lives" - particularly in the complexities of World War II.

"You can just hate war, but there's something seductive about it," Burns says. "Life is paradoxically most vivifying when you're closest to death in war and you find some spectacular human behavior."

That involved "the folks back home" as well as the warriors. Civilians often had, because of censorship, no notion of how bad things were.

As for D-Day on June 6, 1944, what a grim venture that was and how gallant were those who made it work at such horrible costs? In the film "Saving Private Ryan," staged settings duplicated the Normandy horrors. Burns and Co. have actual footage, which is even more ghastly than the "Ryan" presentations.

Imagine the reaction if the American public had immediately seen the horrors of D-Day and how close the Nazis came to throwing the Allies back into the sea.

The intimacies shown in the production often are heartbreaking as losses, never anticipated, cascade across the screen.

Consider the courage and foresight of Walter Ehlers of Manhattan, Kan., pulling 12 comrades off Omaha Beach on D-Day as shells rained down and bodies piled up. He was awarded the Medal of Honor but learned later his brother had been killed before his landing craft could even get near the beach. Ehlers calmly declares he'd have given both arms and both legs to get his brother home safely.

Dick Sengpiehl grew up in Parsons, and he and his family were among the "patriots" who factored so silently but heavily in the victories in Europe and the Pacific.

"Although I was just a kid, I did what I could by collecting grease, newspapers, metal, etc., and was one of the two best War Bond-sellers in Garfield School. We of course had our victory garden. People today just have no concept of what it was like during that time for the most part. I still think we need the draft so more people will be involved in our process."

"Everyone knew we had to win the war," Marsha Henry Goff says. "In kindergarten in Sabetha, Kansas, we did our part by collecting tin cans and planting a school Victory Garden. We were proud - hopefully not erroneous - in thinking our efforts were helping to win the war. Still, we were engaged - even at that young age."

Questions asked during 1941-45 are being asked today, according to Burns. "Do we have the right equipment? What kinds of sacrifices are we going to have to make? We'll look back at the second world war, and that may be the last time we were all together. One of the reasons we were so united is because we were willing to give up things together. Everyone tried to give up something to help. Today, we really haven't been asked to give up anything, and if this film doesn't drive anything else home, it needs to make the point we can handle the worst situations and prevail."

Vignettes of "little happenings" stir memories, good and bad, for many who lived in the period.

Lawrence resident Scottie Lingelbach, who served the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, had a scene hit home when an inventive surgeon decided to use maggots in a cast to devour bone impurities for a wounded battler. The arm was saved.

"It reminded me that my Dale had that also done when he was evacuated to England, though he needed many surgeries after that. I think they still use sterilized maggots to clean wounds."

In and around Lawrence, housing was overrun in early 1942 when the Hercules Powder Co. opened Sunflower Ordnance Works near De Soto. Eventually, more than 25,000 people would work there during construction and production. At one point, Sunflower alone was turning out more propellant than all the plants in the entire British Empire. To take advantage of the good pay at Sunflower, people lived here in unfinished basements and attics and even some ramshackle huts.

Merchants saw profits soar beyond anything they could have dreamed.

In 1945, labor here was so scarce that area manufacturers and potato-growers combined to set up a local labor camp for German prisoners of war. At one point, the camp near 11th and Haskell held some 300 workers.

There were shortages of everything. No gasoline, no tires, little sugar, scarce toilet paper "and you walked all the time" to save, Lingelbach recalls.

Kansas University enrollment dropped from 5,299 in 1940-41 to under 4,000 in 1942-43. To prevent KU from folding, Chancellor Deane Malott wisely lined up training programs to bring in hundreds of military personnel.

Here and everywhere, families constantly feared receiving a telegram declaring the worst for friends and loved ones. Grim gold star flags signaling death replaced the blue star banners of pride in windows.

Despite the overpowering hardships World War II brought out, American forces and civilians continued to deal with their daily onslaughts of rising tension and fear. The "little people" continued to persevere. As hope, dread and death stalked countless lives the world over, people's sacrifices and heroics were incalculable.

Ken Burns clearly makes his point: "There are no ordinary lives."


conservativepunker 10 years, 8 months ago

The gentleman featured in the film named Glenn Frazier is an old family friend of ours. A true character, he is one of the kindest, funniest people I know. Truly a part of "The Greatest Generation".

Haiku_Cuckoo 10 years, 8 months ago

Kudos to Ken Burns. His work is a shining example of good, quality documentary...unlike a lot of the misleading propaganda that some of today's "documentarians" create.

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