Arts Listings

Books: Looking Beyond Ken Burns’ ‘The War’

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday November 27, 2007

Ken Burns’ latest monumental television production is currently being shown on PBS channels. The War follows more than 40 people from 1941 to 1945, focusing on the citizens of Luverne, Minnesota; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama. The book companion to the series, The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, is available in public libraries.  

When I watched and listened to The War, the words and photographs of two of the men who appear throughout—Quentin C. Aanenson of Luverne and Eugene Bondourant Sledge of Mobile—were particularly poignant, especially episode 5: “FUBAR—fucked up beyond all repair.”  

I was living in the Unites States during World War II, contemporary with these then-young heroes. Three of my friends had already enlisted. One, a Nisei, was stationed in cold isolated Minnesota teaching Japanese in six-week rotations. Another was shipped overseas in the Queen Elizabeth’s depths and stationed outside London on General Eisenhower’s clerical staff, diving into a rain-filled fox hole during nightly air-raids. The third, with an incredibly high IQ, was assigned to type and “transport” (drive.) They later used their GI Bills—Hisako earning an M.S. degree, Justine a B.A., and Dorothy a Ph.D; none married.  

I sent soap and stockings to my English Red Cross club counterpart, who had been evacuated from London and already lost some of her hearing in the bombings, and she squeezed handwriting onto both sides of scraps of paper. We became lifelong friends a la Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. 



In 1994 I chanced upon a brief television interview of Aanenson describing “A Fighter Pilot’s Story,” a VHS production he had created for his family. The World Catalog indicates its presence in collections of 43 public, academic and military libraries, two of which are in California: the Los Angeles County Public Library at Downey and the Ontario City Library.  

I was so impressed with this compassionate man that I asked the editor of The Library Journal, for which I reviewed videos and books, to consider it for LJ reviews.  

My review from 17 years ago began:  

“Using personal photos, combat film, period music and correspondence, 73-year-old Aanenson created this masterwork to explain his World War II combat experience to his family. The ‘story’ is of a 20-year-old Army Air Corps enlistetee as he learns to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt, meets his future spouse, is commissioned, and flies European missions beginning with D-Day. (It aired on PBS as part of 1994 D-Day commemoration.) This touching first-person narrative and photographs convey the emotional and physical transformation wrought by the brutality of war conveys a young man who ‘nearly lost all hope.’ Sensitivity, insight, and meticulous record-keeping combine with forthright presentation to make this hero’s narrative unique. Essential for all public, college, and most libraries serving adults and young adults...” [Library Journal 120, April 1, 1995] 

Now an elder, Aanenson appears again, contributing significantly to The War as both a narrator and the fighter pilot. The production team wisely uses his military footage and personal films, diary entries and letters to convey the tragic story of one man’s war from a very personal viewpoint. For pilot Quentin Aanenson, combat brought moments of intense anguish. In a clip posted on The War website, he remembers one mission when his plane’s machine gun fire sent the bodies of German soldiers flying. “When I got back home to the base in Normandy and landed, I got sick,” he says. “I had to think about what I had done … that didn’t change my resolve for the next day. I went out and did it again and again and again and again.” 



“For the men of the ‘old breed’ who struggled, bled, died, and eventually won on Peleliu and Okinawa, Sledgehammer is their most eloquent spokesman. I’m proud to have served with them—and with him,” declares U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Captain Thomas J. Stanley.  

Eugene Bondourant Sledge (1923-2001) was “Sledgehammer” to his fellow rifle company Marines and “E. B. Sledge” as author of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, first published by Novato’s Presidio Press in 1981. UC Berkley’s main collection holds a copy of the illustrated edition for which historian Paul Fussell, another The War narrator, has provided a worthy introduction. Fussell’s own horrific and disillusioning World War II service led to his 1996 book, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic. He writes, “If it was Sledge’s fine sensibility that caused him to suffer more than some, it is that same sensibility that in this book has kept the distinctions firm, the compassion warm, the imagination agile, and the values admirable.”  

Sledge prefaces his book, “My Pacific war experiences have haunted me, and it has been a burden to retain this story ... I’m fulfilling an obligation I have long felt to my companions in the lst Marine Division, who suffered so much for our country. None came out unscathed.”  

One of the many casualties is his initial innocence about human evil: “Something in me died at Peleliu.” 

Today not many Americans can comprehend (let alone pronounce) what happened in places called Bouganville, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Morotai, Noumea, Palau, Pavuvu, Peleliu, Okinawa—other than “The Teahouse of the August Moon.”  

Sledge takes the reader into “the abyss of Peleliu” and on to “the bloody muddy month of May on Okinawa” that almost drove him insane and about which 50 years later he still had nightmares. Supposed to take three or four days, it lasted for almost two months, one of the worst slaughters of Marines in the Pacific. Many now believe that the invasion of this six-square mile island was entirely unnecessary. 

“As I looked at the stains on the coral, I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how ‘gallant’ it is for a man to ‘shed his blood for his country,’ and ‘to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,’ and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited … None of us would ever be the same after what we had endured. To some degree that is true, of course, of all human experience. But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepts as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.”  



Following World War II, I began to reject that giving their lives phrase. Today, when, instead, I say taking their lives, at best I get a questioning look. 

Despite the old saw about one picture being worth a thousand words, I shall avoid the likes of the mini TV-series said to be forthcoming from DreamWorks, Inc., creators of Band of Brothers. It “will tell the intertwined stories of three Marines during America’s battles with the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II.” Joseph Mazzello has been cast as Eugene Sledge; filming locations include Australia. 

Nothing can take the place of viewing/listening to “A Fighter Pilot’s Story,” which is extremely verbal, and slowly reading With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Both are still essential for the collections of all public, college, and most libraries serving adults and young adults. I commend Sledge to those who determine community book-reading; while he’s not in the public library’s collection and the university’s circulating collection is not accessible to ordinary folk, Amazon makes it possible to be in spirit with the Old Breed.