One of the seminal events in my life was watching the 1952 broadcasts of NBC’s Victory at Sea on our family TV set. I was born on December 10, 1941, thee days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I have some early memories of the war years and when it was over. Those who served were coming home, but not all of them. One of my mother’s brothers were among those who did not return alive.
When I saw this 3-disc set in the $3.95 bin at WalMart I bought it and watched all 26 episodes over three evenings. Now at 76, rather than 11, and after having served in the U.S. Army as an Engineer Officer myself, I have a different appreciation of what I seeing.
While it is true that, “History is written by the victors,” sufficient time had passed between the end of the war in 1945 and the production of this series in 1952 that a lot of the war-time propaganda aspects of period movies was gone. After the war there was the opportunity to use materials filmed by all sides of the conflict, and to see combat footage where sometimes a thousand men were were instantly killed when a troop transport was sunk. Not that the individual shots of the dead and wounded on all sides were any less gripping. This was film taken at the time of the events of real men and women in great peril, fighting and dying for their fellows, countries and causes.
Victory at Sea starts with some glimpses of the pre-war years and the American build-up in men and arms during the war. In the first disc there are a number of scenes of volunteers reporting for their physicals. To a man, they were all slim to skinny. As a nation we would be very hard pressed to find equal numbers of similarly physically fit young men in today’s United States. These men appeared to be largely 18-20-years-old. Many were farm kids, brought up with a life hard physical work; but even those who were not, appeared in much better shape than their same-age peers today. Throughout the entire movie almost no one is overweight.
The full measure of live combat, messy, dirty, confused, and deadly is shown as the series follows the war years in both Europe and Asia. Again I was struck with the enormous amount of personal physical effort required to fight in the jungles of New Guinea and Burma, the deserts of North Africa, the nearly barren islands of the Aleutians, and the on many islands of the Pacific. Sometimes these combatants are identified as belonging to “The Greatest Generation,” because they knew danger and sacrifice and did what they did anyway, knowing that any second they might lie dead in the putrid soil of some green hell.
Those who want war and speak of easy victories have very often never seen it. This series of videos shows war, and if you look it is very easy to see yourself as one of those sea-sick troopers waiting for the door of their landing craft to drop so they could storm Hitler’s Fortress Europe. They would be greeted not by rose peddles and flags, but by a hail of machine-gun bullets already peppering the steel door of the landing craft. There were also those in all branches of service who were sent on missions with only a slight possibility that they would return alive. Their enlistments were not for a year or two years, but for the duration of the war or such time that they were so crippled by physical or mental injures that they were no longer, “fit for service.”
Are such men and women as they still in existence in the United States? I am confident that the answer is, “Yes,” given similar circumstances where our nation was attached or threatened with attack. Another message delivered by Victory at Sea is that despite being dealt a hard blow at Pearl Harbor, losing the Philippines and having the Japanese occupy a part of the Aleutian Islands; America recovered, fought simultaneous wars in Europe and Asia and emerged as a victor, only to face new threats. One time allies like The Soviet Union and China became foes and one-time foes Japan and Germany became friends.
Given the ever changing political climate and the failure of The United Nations to serve as a world-governing body that is effective enough to keep peace, no one knows what perils that the United States will face in the future. One thing that is amply demonstrated in Victory at Sea is that if we are attacked, we will defend ourselves and continue to fight until our opponent is defeated. Never understate America’s resolve or our ability to survive and ultimately prevail. This is the greatest lesson that Victory at Sea has to teach Americans and the world.
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