Part 3 – History of The War: my conversation with Ken Burns

THE WAR: part 3

So what did Ken Burns show in his 1.25 hour preview of his 14.5 hour, 7 part documentary on World War II called The War? The audience included hundreds of Air Force cadets, virtually the same age as the soldier’s were who fought in the story.

Using still photos and film from the National Archives, most of it taken by the U.S. military, much of it never seen before by the general public, through the words of newspaper clippings, letters, and 40 first-person accounts we were told about:

Tarawa: A strategically located Pacific atoll, America lost almost 3,000 Marines in November 1943 in a bloody attack against 4,700 Japanese soldiers defending an air strip. Only 17 Japanese survived.

On March 9, 1945, 354 B-29 bombers dropped jellied gasoline, napalm, on 16 square miles of Tokyo. 100,000 died, over a million were left homeless. And that was just the first raid.

B-29 bombers: In the Pacific theater, the B-29 “Superfortress” bomber was fitted with Norden bombsighting technology. Bombardiers liked to boast that with the “Norden bombsight they could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet.”

In Europe, the Allies would do their bombing runs over Germany at night, to avoid detection in the pre-radar era. Their accuracy, however, showed that only 1 in 5 strikes were within five miles of the target. When the American’s joined the war, they’d fly during the days — more accurate, but much more dangerous.

B-17 belly gunners: One airman told the story of how he had joined at 19 to experience the excitement of flying. Of the 9 guns on a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” he was a belly gunner. They’d fly over Germany with an Allied fighter escort, but the smaller planes would run out of fuel be reaching the drop zone. As the bombers approached their targets, now unescorted, German fighters would climb into the skies. They were fast, and he had a hard time tracking them with his 50 caliber guns. But the German fighters used rockets, and could attach from a much greater distance. “Our guns couldn’t reach them.” On one sortie (shown with an incredible accompanying audio track), he was hit and began to bleed in the belly turret. Using his training as a Boy Scout, he saved his own life by properly applying a tourniquet. It was “minus 30 outside and the blood began to collect and freeze. I had to gather it up, or it would be a mess to clean up when we landed… It was about 4 hours to fly back to base.”

Operation Cobra. Following the Normandy Invasion, the Americans wanted to break out of the area. Hedgerow warfare in August of 1944 closed the “Falaise Gap,” and ultimately drove the Germans out of that area of France.

B-29s would fly bombing raids from Saipan to Tokyo, but there was an airfield on a small island along their route that would send up fighters to harass them. This island was Iwo Jima. Six thousand tons of bombs were dropped on the island. Then another day of naval bombardments. Three waves of Marines went in, and it looked like it would be easier to take than expected… but twenty thousand Japanese were waiting. By February 17, 2050 Americans were dead, and the battle would rage for a month, until 6821 died. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded, 13 posthumously. They were called the X-ray Company, so many of them were lost.

Flame thrower. One humorous story was told of a soldier using a flame thrower during the attack of Iwo Jima. After several hours of battle, he went to the beach, stripped of his equipment and clothes, and took a swim. He got out, suited up, and continued fighting.

Ken Burns says that we often look back on these years and believe they lived in “simpler times.” But, he pointed out:

The 30s were the time of the greatest economic dislocation in the world, and the 40s saw the world greatest conflagration. In many ways, it is we who live in simpler times.

Much of the narration of documentary was done by the actor Keith David. Ken Burns concluded his preview with a song called American Anthem, written by Gene Scheer, but not for this documentary. However, Nora Jones did a special recording, and he played it with scenes interspersed from the film. It was quite stunning, indeed.

Don’t miss the September 2007 debut of The War.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. History of The War: TV miniseries at Bill Petro on September 20, 2007 at 11:44 pm

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