Whenever these days of remembrance emerge, my mind revisits the following column I wrote in late summer of 2007. The occasion was the premiere of a Ken Burns documentary that featured the effects of WWII on Mobile.
I was lucky enough to briefly interview Burns. I recall what appeared to be a hectic pace for the filmmaker and even had the pleasure of informing him the historic hotel in which he slept – The Battle House – once housed Pres. Woodrow Wilson on a 1913 visit.
The recent airing of HBO's The Pacific also conjured this essay.
I hope this serves some purpose on this Memorial Day.
Amazing how a stranger can dredge up so much within you.
Like many Mobilians, I’ve spent the last two weeks glued to Alabama Public Television, enthralled in Ken Burns’ The War. And like most who witnessed it, the World War II documentary series stirred memories, tales of family members and the donations they made to the war effort.
Of a maternal great grandmother widowed at the onset of the Depression with four children and how she worked during the war winding armatures in a defense factory.
Of a great uncle who served in the Navy and came home to shock everyone with an earring and tattoos.
Of another great uncle who fought with the Marines at Iwo Jima, caught shrapnel in his leg and then forever refused to discuss his experiences in the South Pacific’s meat grinder.
Of a grandfather who left a roster slot pitching for the Orioles organization to head to Europe. In newly liberated Paris, he dove for cover when the air raid alarm sounded one day, smashing open the bridge of his nose on a bunk’s metal rail and leaving a sizable scar. The plane spotted overhead wasn’t enemy aircraft but a misidentified Allied plane and he later laughed when telling of the Purple Heart he received.
Tragically, I also recall another grandfather who fought fascism in that time only to spend his later years describing the best form of government as “benevolent dictatorship” and subscribing to periodicals declaring the Holocaust a hoax.
But I expected all of that reminiscence as some of it arose when I saw the early September preview Burns and crew held in town.
Other things emerged as I watched these past weeks, reactions expected but still visceral.
The anger at the prejudice endured by Japanese-Americans and African-Americans.
The horror and outrage when reacquainted with the Japanese Army’s Rape of Nanking and their treatment of American servicemen.
Even more rage and revulsion at the “industrialized barbarism” of Nazi death camps.
However, one set of recollections was unforeseen.
The documentary's testimony from Mobilian Maurice Bell brought back a time in my own life, early 1991 when I worked on a film crew shooting a movie for CBS.
The network film centered the tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a ship that delivered the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima then was sunk by an enemy submarine. The Indianapolis crew floundered in the water for days afterward, their plight unknown due to faulty Navy procedures. Hundreds died from exposure, wounds and shark attack before accidental discovery by a passing plane.
We spent three weeks filming in various locales around the county, two solid weeks of which were spent aboard the submarine and battleship that are now museums on the Causeway.
The 16-hour workdays provided good money but the glamour of the job quickly diminished when much of the time was spent tolerating various pretensions from cast and crew.
I watched cast member and television tough guy Stacy Keach physically mock a disabled crew member, limping in an exaggerated gait across the set as the fellow hobbled to his prop truck. Just as revolting was the laughter from the crew at Keach’s puerile antics.
I heard endless screaming, endured belligerence and tension from a combative, surly and uncommunicative director. In the midst of one of this prima donna’s episodes, I remember considering a friend deployed at that moment in Operation Desert Storm, likely in the thick of actual battle with his Marine unit, perhaps dead or dying.
“If we completely fail at this," I thought, "all that will happen is CBS runs a repeat episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’ that night. Go tell my friend’s parents how important this movie really is.”
Rather than gaining insight and perspective from the story they were telling, from the experiences of the actual Indianapolis veterans, my colleagues used the film to heighten their own sense of self-importance.
One of our last days of filming, Maurice Bell showed up on set. Someone had discovered the U.S.S. Indianapolis veteran in town and invited him to attend. The scene that day centered a hospital filled with survivors after their rescue.
As Bell wandered the room, he saw the actors and extras in their made-up wounds and sunburns. He just looked around and murmured, “They looked much worse than this. Much worse.”
Bell silently shook his head and shuffled away, seemingly in disbelief at the feebly attempted replication of genuine suffering and horror and the way some of our group seemed to feel as if they could in any way relate to what he endured.
I imagined he thought none could understand what it was like to offer yourself as grist, to willingly lose a portion of your soul and sanity for the welfare of others.
Watching and listening to Bell recount those days in the water for Burns’ crew brought my own flashback, not to personal hardship but to presumption and unappreciated sacrifice.
And an unspoken promise never to forget.