Jeff Jardine

Shocking memories, lessons in 'The War'

In recent interviews, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talked about the urgency in making "The War," the outstanding World War II series that aired this past week on PBS.

Some things he said struck me as being extremely important.

First, that a good number of high school students he informally polled believed that the United States teamed with Nazi Germany to fight the Soviets. He was not kidding and found nothing funny about it.

Second, Burns said he knew he could no longer wait to produce the series. A decade ago, he said, many World War II veterans still refused to talk about the horrors they experienced in battle and in liberating the prison and concentration camps. Now, some of them decided, it was time to share what they had kept from their children and grandchildren for so long.

And, Burns said, the vast majority of our World War II vets could be gone within the next five years. He knew his window was closing rapidly, to tell the story the way he believed it should be told: factually and through the eyes and souls of those who lived through it.

Everything Burns said rang true with what I've encountered talking with World War II veterans over the years. Our greatest generation, as Tom Brokaw called it, is nearing its end. From 1,000 to 1,200 American World War II veterans die each day, according to varying sources.

Burns' documentary is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It's a brutally honest presentation that sugarcoats nothing -- not the dead, not the emaciated prisoners of the concentration camps and prisoner of war camps, not any horror of war.

Given the publicity the documentary received, I wondered if many of our local World War II veterans have watched the series, and how it affected those who did. Were there some who could not watch it at all because of the emotions it would stir?

Perhaps surprisingly, Ventura "Ben" Moreno of Patterson has watched -- surprising because only in the past year or so has he finally been able to open up and tell his family what really happened to him during the war. Among his experiences, he knocked out a Japanese machine gun nest on Okinawa and took a bullet in the wrist in the process, earning him a Purple Heart.

The series, Moreno said, "Brings back memories."

"My children have asked me about it, and I tell them, 'This is what I don't wish on anybody,' " he said.

In one segment, the documentary explained how, on the island of Saipan, Japanese soldiers convinced the women and children that, if captured by the Americans, they'd be terrorized and slaughtered. So the women sent their babies to their deaths by throwing them off a cliff, and then jumped off as well.

"I actually saw that happening when I was there," Moreno said.

He also found himself drawn to the HBO war series "Band of Brothers."

"My wife said, 'Why do you watch them? They make you cry.' I said, 'Because you've been through it, you feel it and those guys (in his outfit) are closer to you than your own family.' "

Marvel Dunbar of Modesto was a wartime ship's chaplain. He, too, has watched "The War" series, and it has helped him understand why so many of the veterans he's known simply could not talk about their experiences.

"I've known hundreds of veterans over the years," Dunbar said. "Very few will give you the word-by-word of what it really was like."

The graphic documentary gave him some painful insight.

"It was very difficult for me to watch except for the fact that war is war," Dunbar said. "The killing of innocent people, the children, the bombing in Japan -- it didn't bother my sleep, but it bothered me to watch. I thought, 'Is it so necessary to show it?' But if it paves the way for future diplomacy, it's worth it."

Carl Reinhart of Ceres, who worked in Army signal centers throughout the South Pacific, was moved by the viciousness of the Germans and Japanese, and how some American soldiers responded.

"It really describes how degrading people can be at times," said Reinhart, 85. "One of the (soldiers) in the film saw the atrocities and said, 'I'm not going to take any more prisoners.' It's hard for one who hasn't been right in the middle of it to understand all of that."

Allen Sughrue of Hughson became a prisoner of war when his B-17 bomber was shot down by the Germans in 1944. He watched the entire series.

"They didn't really go into anything I did, which is probably better," said Sughrue, 84. "But I can't see where (Burns) could have done it any better. You see all the damage of war taking place and they bring enough of the human side, too.

"It affects everybody. In World War II, our whole country was at war. It affected everyone, and everyone was behind it. Now, we're in a situation (in Iraq) where the military's at war and the rest of the country's doing its thing."

By pure coincidence, Sughrue was in the same prison in Budapest -- and at the same time -- as Chuck Walker of Hughson. Walker also was shot down by the Germans, five days after Sughrue.

They now live in Samaritan Village and met for the first time in July, unaware until then they had been POWs together 63 years ago.

Walker, however, hasn't seen the series. "I used to watched those things, but I've gotten to where I just don't watch them anymore," he said.

Nor has B.J. Rommel of Modesto, who survived the D-Day invasion in 1944. For whatever reasons, he didn't get his Purple Heart and other medals for 60 years, finally receiving them in 2004.

He didn't need to see it again.

There is no war without tragedy. But that tragedy is amplified when its devastating effects are forgotten or, worse yet, ignored. For that reason alone, Burns' series should be part of U.S. History curriculum in high schools.

No, kids, America didn't tag-team with Nazi Germany to wipe out the Soviet Union. Germany, Japan and Italy were our enemies.

Yes, war is ugly in any form. And yes, the generation of World War II veterans is ebbing.

They fought too hard and stood for too much, and it would be a shame if the war, an era and a turning point in world history, becomes just another TV show or DVD, already in a video store near you.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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