War Stories: The American People in World War II

An epic film documents the experiences of the citizen soldier and his community.

HUMANITIES, July/August 2007, Volume 28, Number 4

In April 1943, twenty-year-old Corado Ciarlo from Waterbury, Connecticut, known as “Babe” to his family and friends, was bogged down on the beaches at Anzio with the Fifth Allied Army. The supposedly surprise Allied attack on Italy had been anticipated by the Germans, who kept up a constant barrage of fire as Allied forces fought their way inland. By the time the Anzio campaign ended, seven thousand Americans were dead and another thirty-six thousand were wounded or missing. Babe was one of the lucky ones—he was still alive. But he was also about to embark, along with the rest of the Fifth Allied Army, on a bloody push toward Rome.

Babe wrote to his family back in Waterbury whenever he could. His mother, a widow, lived for his letters. Every day she would wait on the porch hoping the postman would bring another letter from her middle son. When the letters arrived, they said nothing of the horrors Babe had seen. Instead, he was brief and upbeat:

I am in the best of health and I hope to hear the same from all of you always. Well, things here are moving pretty smooth and the only thing I do is eat and sleep and if I keep it up much longer I’ll be a barrel.

Love, Babe

Babe’s family believed him. “You see probably on the newsreel or you read about it in the paper about different battles,” says Babe’s brother, Thomas Ciarlo. “But you don’t actually put Babe in that position. At one point . . . my mother had my aunt write a letter in Italian that she had sent to Babe. ‘When you get to Rome . . . we have relatives over there. When you get there show them these letters and they’ll treat you well.’ And at the time, you think, ‘Well, yeah, heÕs going to be in Italy. He’s going to Rome and he’s going to see his relatives.’ Can you imagine that? You think about it now and it’s so unreal.”

Babe’s letters stopped coming in June 1944. On June 26, the family received word that Babe, just eight days shy of his twenty-first birthday, had been killed in the battle for Cisterna. Babe’s mother refused to accept that her son was dead. For months afterward, she looked at photographs of soldiers in the newspaper and insisted that Babe was among them, alive and fighting.

Babe’s story is just one of dozens told by World War II veterans and their families in the NEH-supported seven-part documentary, The War, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and written by Geoffrey C. Ward. The film debuts on September 23 on public television.

“World War II veterans are dying at a rate of one thousand a day,” says Burns. “Each death is a set of memories, almost like an entire library disappearing. We felt a kind of urgency to learn their stories and record their deeds.” In addition to conducting interviews, the filmmakers used letters, photographs, and newspaper accounts, which allowed them to tell the story of the war from a more intimate perspective.

Novick, who calls the documentary “World War II 101,” hopes viewers will feel a sense of connection with history. “The story of World War II will never fully be told,” she says. “We tried to do it from a different angle, in a way it hasn’t been addressed. The people left to tell their own stories are the regular soldiers, the ‘grunts,’ who fought in the war. We really wanted to make a film that would honor their experiences and sacrifice.”

To frame their story, Burns and Novick rejected focusing on celebrity generals or specific fighting units in favor of concentrating on four American towns: Waterbury, Connecticut, known as “Brass City” for the screws, washers, buttons, and many other metal items it produced; Mobile, Alabama, a shipbuilding town divided by race; Luverne, Minnesota, a prairie town with just over three thousand residents; and Sacramento, California, the state capital, surrounded by fertile land and home to almost seven thousand Japanese Americans.

In the fall of 1941, Americans cast anxious eyes on the battles raging across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Nazi Germany, which had devoured Western Europe, was tearing up North Africa and squaring off against the Russians on the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, Japan continued to consolidate its hold on China. The solace provided by distance was broken on December 7, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Soon after, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. America was suddenly at war on two fronts.

In the summer of 1941, sixteen-year-old Glenn Frazier, distraught because the girl he loved confessed her devotion to someone else, ran away from his home in Alabama. He lied to Army recruiters about his age and signed up to serve in the Philippines, thinking he would be safe from the war raging in Europe. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Frazier became one of thirty-one thousand men under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.

As a child, Frazier had been taught that killing was wrong, but after his first taste of war, he was a changed man. When Japanese bombers attacked Manila, Frazier saw a friend killed by a direct hit. “And then when that Japanese zero turned his wings . . . and started to fly away, I could see him with a smile on his face,” recalls Frazier. “And at that point, I had no problem with killing people. I got to the point where I hunted them. And if I didn’t kill a Japanese in a day, I felt I didn’t do my job.”

The Americans were soon overwhelmed by the more than Þfty thousand Japanese troops converging on Manila. MacArthur ordered a retreat to the Bataan Peninsula, a mountainous malarial place. Short on supplies, the Americans fought off one Japanese attack after another, waiting for the reinforcements MacArthur said were on the way. The help never came.

After four months, Frazier and the other surviving Americans were taken prisoner. They endured brutal treatment at the hands of their captors, beginning with a forced march through the jungle that came to be known as the Bataan Death March. Frazier survived the march, but spent the remainder of the war in slave labor camps in Japan. One day, on burial detail above a mass grave, he threw his dog tags into the pit. He was certain he would die shortly. ConÞdent that the tags would be found after the war, he wanted to relieve his family of uncertainty about his fate.

When the Allies retook the Philippines, they discovered the mass grave with Frazier’s dog tags in it. The Army rightly believed that Frazier was dead and notified his family. Frazier’s father, however, refused to believe it. He said, “I’m sure if anybody can make it, my son can make it.” Miraculously, Frazier survived his internment. When he returned to the United States at the end of the war, he called home. His mother answered the phone and fainted upon hearing the voice of a son she had been told was dead.

For families like the Ciarlos and the Fraziers, the war meant more than just having a son fighting. It also transformed the home front. The Office of Civil Defense asked every American to become a “fighting unit on the home front.” Families were encouraged to grow Victory Gardens, and rationing became a fact of life. Scrap metal, which could be recycled into arms, was in great demand. In Luverne, which had been founded by Civil War veterans, the town council voted to melt down cannonballs from a memorial to Union soldiers. Even bacon fat was valuable—it could be turned into glycerin.

The moribund economy began to boom as “war towns,” where factories were retooled to produce the equipment needed for war, sprung up across the country. One such town was Mobile, Alabama, which had been hit hard by the Great Depression. The economic downturn had closed shipyards, shuttered businesses, and forced industrial plants to lay off workers. The war, however, brought back prosperity and infused the city with energy. Gulf Shipbuilding grew from 240 employees in 1940 to more than eleven thousand in 1943. Meanwhile, the workforce at Alabama Dry Dock grew from one thousand workers to almost thirty thousand. Plants ran around the clock and even on Sundays. “Mobile became so crowded in six months that people were living in vacant lots,” says Katharine Phillips, who grew up in Mobile and worked during the war at a nursery school for the children of shipyard workers.

The war also brought women into the labor force in droves. By 1943, six million women were employed, nearly half of them in defense plants, including more than four thousand in Mobile. One of them, Emma Belle Petcher, learned to assemble bomber parts with such skill that she was one of two women put in charge of quality control.

While the war created new opportunities and prosperity on the home front, it also exacerbated racism and xenophobia. In Mobile, African Americans who came in search of work in the shipyards were not always welcomed by white shipyard workers, even though there was more than enough work for everybody. Racial tension flared and riots broke out as blacks demanded fair treatment.

Although African American men were drafted to fight for freedom, they were relegated to segregated units. The Army Air Corps created a separate training camp for African-American fighter pilots at the Tuskegee Institute. The U.S. Navy designated the USS Mason an all-black ship, except for its captain. The U.S. Army created the all-black 761st Tank Battalion. When the 761st joined the fight in Europe, General George Patton told them: “I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those kraut sonsabitches.” The Marine Corps refused to allow blacks in its ranks, until it was confronted with mounting casualties in the Pacific and pressure from civil rights groups. Even then, blacks were placed in segregated units and given mainly support jobs.

For Japanese Americans, the home front became an internment camp. In the hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor, the government forced more than one hundred and ten thousand Japanese Americans living along the West Coast, including roughly seven thousand from Sacramento and the surrounding area, to abandon their homes and businesses and relocate to isolated camps inland, where they lived cramped in bunkhouses behind barbed wire.

“It was middle of the harvest and . . . yet we had to abandon it and leave,” says Susumu Satow, whose family grew strawberries, grapes and raspberries on a twenty-acre farm east of Sacramento. “You know this is just the beginning and they may very well send us back to Japan. In my heart I knew my loyalty belongs to America. I went to school, pledged allegiance every morning in grammar school and so forth. To think that I may be sent to Japan was . . . horrendous.”

Despite what was happening to their friends and family, young Japanese American men yearned to fight for their country and demonstrate their loyalty. Initially, those who wanted to sign up for combat were rejected as “enemy aliens.” The military eventually allowed Japanese Americans to serve as part of a special segregated unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In Hawaii and in the internment camps thousands signed up, including Satow. The 442nd went on to distinguish itself in combat in Europe. One of its members was Daniel Inouye, a highly decorated soldier who later became a U.S. Senator.

By late spring of 1944, there were signs that the tide of the war was turning. The Allies had stopped Japan’s expansion in the Pacific, taking Guadalcanal and Tarawara, and ravaged Japan’s ßeet at Midway. The Americans and British occupied North Africa and Rome. Allied planes bombed Germany around the clock, while the Russians advanced toward Berlin from the east. Despite Allied advances, Germany retained its grip on Western Europe, girding itself against the long-anticipated invasion of France, while Japan also made it clear that it would Þght to the last man rather than surrendering.

Al McIntosh, editor of Luverne’s Rock County Star newspaper, vividly captured the tenor of those times, including the breathless anticipation of what became known as D-Day. On May 25, 1944, McIntosh wrote in his bi-weekly column that:

Outwardly, things haven’t changed here. The lilacs are out in full bloom. The countryside was never greener. At night there are a million stars . . . winking in the sky. But things are different. The staffs of daily newspapers all over the country are on alert in case news of the invasion of Europe breaks. Key executives don’t stir very far from a telephone day or night. The belief is that the long-awaited flash will come sometime after 11 p.m. but before 5 a.m.

Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, the invasion of Western Europe began on the Normandy coast of France. Paratroopers descended behind enemy lines, while thousands of soldiers stormed the beaches. Wave after wave of Allied aircraft attacked German defenses. By day’s end, more than one hundred and fifty thousand Allied soldiers had landed on French soil. Nearly twenty-five hundred lay dead. The invasion gave the Allies the foothold they needed and by mid-August, the Germans were in full retreat. On August 25, the Allies liberated Paris.

By June 1944, the Allies dominated the air, strafing and bombing the Germans from American P-47 Thunderbolts. “It was on one of my early missions that I knew I had, I’d killed men,” says Quentin Aanenson of Luverne.

We caught a group of Germans that were on a road in an area where there were no trees. And I remem ber the impact it had on me when I could see my bullets just tearing into them. That was my job. This is what I’d been trained to do, and I dealt with it fine. But when I got back home to the base in Normandy and landed I got sick. I had to think about what I had done. Now that didn’t change my resolve. I went out and did it again. And again and again and again.

As American and British forces closed in on Berlin, they encountered Nazi Germany’s ghoulish project: the concentration camps where Hitler carried out his plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe. “I saw one of those places where they were, where they had the people that were dying,” says Dwain Luce, then an army captain from Mobile. “And dead bodies stacked like cordwood. These people in this country who say it didn’t happen, it happened. I saw it, I know.”

The war in Europe ended in May 1945, following Germany’s surrender in the wake of Hitler’s suicide. Japan surrendered in August 1945, following the dropping of the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the invasion of Manchuria by the Soviet Union.

While military and political events ended the war, for the soldiers who fought it and their families, the war was never truly over. “There are casualties in war that never show up as casualties,” says Aanenson. “They’re internal casualties. We all changed. We went out as a bunch of kids. Wars are fought by kids. And we came back-looked maybe the same but inside we were so different.” Although Frazier made it home, he also carried with him for the rest of his life the physical and psychological scars of his wartime experience.

The war left its mark on families as well. More than four hundred thousand soldiers paid for victory with their lives. Babe Ciarlo’s mother, still in denial about the death of her son, refused to believe that he was not coming home. He eventually came, but in a casket. “I think the worst day was when they brought his body back,” says Babe’s sister, Olga. “And we went down to the railroad station and when they took his body off the train and we were all there, we all went to the cemetery, when they handed my mother the flag.”