“I may have dropped into Normandy on D-Day, but I still had Liberty in Paris or London. You Gyrenes had jungle rot and malaria.”
In 2001, HBO came out with a mini-series that detailed the experiences of the men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne. This series was produced with loving care by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Two men who were instrumental in the success of an earlier World War 2 project called Saving Private Ryan. This series was called Band of Brothers and became one of the most critically-acclaimed mini-series of its time and has become part of the staple of military-themed shows and films that gets shown on Memorial and Veterans Day in the United States.
Even as this series was only a year old there was talk from some of its admirers about whether HBO and the team of Hanks and Spielberg would re-visit this era Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation”. To re-visit and tell the stories of the men who fought on the other side of the European Theater in what was an even more hellish battlezone in the Pacific. It took almost 9 years, but the ending result is the mini-series called simply The Pacific.
The Pacific tells the story of three Marines of the 1st Marine Corps Division from their time before their unit ships out to the Pacific Theater of Operations and through some of the bloodiest and most savage battlefields of World War 2. There’s Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone (played by Jon Seda) who would show the sort of stoic heroism people nowadays would dismiss as a figment of Hollywood writers, but who actually did all the things only seen in action films. Bookending Basilone would be two newcomers to the art of war in PFC Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale of AMC’s recently cancelled series, Rubicon) and Cpl. Eugene “Sledgehammer” Sledge (Joseph Mazzelo from Jurassic Park). These two Marines are our guide through the unending hell that were the battles in Gen. MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign to beat back the Army and Naval forces of Imperial Japan.
It’s also these two men and their memoirs which detail their experiences during the war in the Pacific which make up the bulk of the narrative for the series. One would be Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa which many consider as one of the best first-hand accounts of combat in the Pacific. The other one is Helmet for My Pillow by Leckie which was a more personal account of his time from Marine boot camp and experiencing a type of warfare in the Pacific which was new to a young man from the States. A type of warfare where the enemy didn’t surrender and would sacrifice his life in the service of one’s Emperor.
Basilone, Sledge and Leckie’s stories never come together but were told in concurrent fashion to show the audience the differing views of each. All three would go through the same meat-grinder that were the battles in immortalized places named Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
We see Basilone’s heroism on Guadalcanal make him into a Stateside hero and taken away from those he fought beside to help push war bonds for the government. This change in environment for him doesn’t sit well with Basilone as we see the survivor’s guilt in him. Why does he get all the celebrity attentions when others like him were still fighting and dying the same battles he was just in months before. His story is the most poignant of the three as he finds happiness while training new Marines for the war only for his need to get back into the fight win out. The fact that all this happened for real makes his story even more memorable. Hollywood writers have tried to capture such moments and often-times fail. It was great to see Basilone’s story told for everyone to see that the world past, present and future has real-life heroes that Hollywood could never replicate but only imitate.
Jon Seda’s performance was in-line with what one thinks a gung-ho Marine should be but he brought a sense of realism to the role. He didn’t try to make Basilone more a hero than he already was. I like to compare his performance to that of Tom Hanks’ Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan and Damian Lewis’ Maj. Dick Winters in Band of Brothers. He was a man who did acts of bravery as seen by others on the battlefield and one which made him a celebrity to the civilians Stateside. But in the end he just saw it as him doing his job as he was trained and trying to keep his men alive. He didn’t see himself as a hero and while his Stateside role of war hero pushing war bonds did bring some perks he never fit in. Seda’s work in Part Eight where he meets his future wife was some of the best work in this series.
In Leckie’s story we see a man swept up in the great enlistment drive which happened right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His story sees a cocky and smart young man wanting to do his part for the war effort yet not knowing the sort of sacrifices he’ll have to make or the horrors he will witness and inflict to survive day-to-day. We see Leckie quick to make friends in his unit during their training and then through their baptism of fire in the Battle of Tenaru before seeing the real horror of the war in the Pacific as his unit and the rest of the 1st Marine Division land of the island of Guadalcanal.
His time on Guadalcanal would soon erase any romanticized notion of honor and glory in battle Leckie may have had when he decided to enlist. As a writer in his civilian life prior to the war’s start he would continue to write his experiences in-between battles and skirmishes with the Japanese. Even when friends in his unit would die each and every day it seems Leckie seemed to want to keep that savagery at bay with his writing which would become a basis for his wartime memoirs. His story ends midway through the series and we won’t see him again until the final denouement as we see Leckie’s life as a civilian once again after the war. His final time in the warzone would be on the Battle of Peleliu (one of the bloodiest battles in USMC history and one that would be steeped in tragedy afterwards) where a severe concussive blast would render him unable to fight. It’s scenes on one of the hospital ships off the coast of Peleliu where Leckie’s own survivor’s guilt is temepered by the realization that any more time out in the battlefield would surely strip him of his humanity and turn him into the growing examples of battle-scarred and psychologically damaged Marines who have seen and done too many horrible things to ever return back to their civilian life intact.
The final episode shows Leckie (with James Badge Dale in a confident and cocky turn) the one who seem to adjust to the life back to civilian life with a modicum of ease. While he still carries the scars of battle in his psyche its that time in the Pacific which has also given Leckie the confidence to get his old job back at the local paper he used to work for and woo the pretty girl next door he had been shy and awkward with in the very first episode. While his performance wasn’t as good as Seda it was still a noteworthy one which brought the person of PFC Robert Leckie to the masses watching this series.
Lastly, we come to the third of the three whose story the series revolves around. The story of one Cpl. Eugene Sledge who, like Leckie, wanted to do his part for the war effort. While his young age at the start of the war prohibited him from enlisting without his parents’ consent he finally gets a chance a year later when he is of age and just in time for him to join the Corps, train and see his first taste of combat in the Pacific on the killing grounds of Peleliu then the hellish nightmare battlefields of Okinawa.
Sledge’s story is the most complex and runs the gamut of dark emotions a young man should never have to take. His young idealism in helping his country in its time of need will get some tempering even before he ships out to become a Marine. His father tells him of having to treat young men from an earlier era from another major war which had engulfed the world. His father spoke about how some of these young men who came back whole physically didn’t do so psychologically. He spoke about how the horrors of war seemed to have “ripped the souls” from these returning young men and how he didn’t want his son to go through the same thing. But as young, headstrong men who think they’re invincible are wont to do he enlists anyway.
The performance by Joseph Mazzello (hard to believe this young man is the same young boy who ran and escaped from CGI raptors and T-Rex on Spielberg’s Jurassic Park) tops all other performances in this cast full of noteworthy and great acting work. We don’t just see his Sledge go through each horrific scene after scene of battle and its aftermath with is emotional and psyche gradually sliding down into the abyss, but we could actually see Mazzello’s body, mannerisms and the look in his eyes make the same changes. I fully bought into his performance as the young idealistic young man from Mobile, Alabama slowly turned into the same uncaring, savage Marine one had to become to survive the war in the Pacific. He had seen enough bodies of Marines and enemy Japanese torn apart and strewn about everywhere one looked that one became inured to them.
One of the most powerful scenes in the series has Sledge confronted by the aftermath of what he and his mortar-team might have been responsible for. It was deep into the campaign to take the island of Okinawa and Sledge and his fellow Marines have been brought to the edge of insanity by all the fighting. A fight which has some of them questioning why the enemy just doesn’t surrender. An enemy willing to suicide charge into heavily armed Marines and also willing to herd Okinawan civilians into the line of fire. It’s this brutality by the enemy and mirrored by his fellow Marines which brings Sledge to a darker side of his nature which we as an audience don’t see a way out for him. But in the scene close to the very end of Part Nine brings Sledge back from the abyss and reminds him that there’s still humanity in him and the very Marines he has been with since the beginning. His reaction afterwards to a group of new Marines killing a young Japanese soldier for sport sickens him. We see Sledge realizing how just days and months before he was spouting the very same savage hate for the enemy as these newly arrived Marines looking for their first kill.
Of the three it’s Sledge who will carry the deepest scars of the Pacific for the rest of his life. We see the extreme difficulty he has in adjusting back to civilian life. Nightmares haunt his nights and flashbacks of the battlefields hound his steps in the daytime. His mental and emotional breakdown as he tries to go back to hunting with his father encapsulates this series at its most basic core. This series doesn’t have the camaraderie and brotherhood established between fellow soldiers that its predecessor had. While Band of Brothers also showed the horrors of war in Europe it was balanced by the hope that everyone in Easy Company had their brothers in arms to back them up when the bullets flew and shells exploded. This wasn’t the case in the Pacific.
Sure the were the same camaraderie and brotherhood, but the type of enemy fought in abject conditions which made downtime from battle almost as bad as the battle themselves didn’t bring hope. It only brought misery and a fatalistic view of the world Sledge and his fellow Marines existed right there and then. His breakdown in the final episode shows how those who fought in the Pacific definitely bore deeper scars and returned more damaged than their European brothers. Scars not just inflicted by the enemy but those they’ve inflicted on themselves by fighting savagery with their own form of savagery. It was a kill or be killed world and returning back from that brink didn’t happen to everyone and those who were able to return did so not whole.
I understand that some were disappointed by how The Pacific turned out. How it didn’t live up to the standards created by Band of Brothers. Some have said that there was no main focus to the narrative the way its predecessor strictly followed the men of Easy Company through the battles in Europe. They’ve pointed out how some episodes took too much time to get to the battle scenes. I think trying to compare The Pacific to Band of Brothers is foolish and a doesn’t give this follow-up mini-series the proper due it deserves.
The Pacific wasn’t trying to tell Band of Brother in the Pacific. While the two series do take place in the same world war the circumstances surrounding the storylines in both series diverge to take different paths. The first series almost seem like men fighting for a common cause and the good fight against tyranny. The Pacific is all about revenge. Revenge and payback for Pearl Harbor at first then as the series moves forward it becomes revenge and brutality for seeing their buddies die. This series showed nothing noble about the fighting in the Pacific. It was just a struggle to survive from one day to the next.
So, while this series may not be the second coming of Band of Brothers it does stand on its own merits and I think was the more powerful of the two. It didn’t flinch away or dismiss the darker side of the “good guys” and showed that war truly is hell and that those who fight and live through it were truly never the same. I say watch The Pacific and stop trying to compare it to Band of Brothers or any of the several shows dealing with the current wars. The Pacific should be watched as seen as the bookend to Band of Brothers. A darker journey to seeing the war of the “Greatest Generation” from the eyes of those who fought and died on the islands and jungles of the Pacific.