Tracking HBO’s "The Pacific"

Eight years ago, doing research for a book called The 25 Best World War II Sites: Pacific Theater, I relied on the works of a pair of U.S. Marine veterans named Robert Leckie and E.B. Sledge to guide me through some of the most horrific battlefields of the war—Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa.

It’s been particularly fascinating and slightly surreal to watch as the HBO series The Pacific has tracked the same men along the same historic path. I admit to following the series with more interest than most, anxious to see if the quotes, anecdotes, and locations that I drew from Leckie and Sledge to illuminate the war will show up in the HBO series.

Some already have, such as episode one’s climactic battle sequence at Alligator Creek on Guadalcanal.

Others are too good not to be repeated.

From his renowned memoir, With the Old Breed, here’s a bit of classic Sledge imagery describing the fighting between American and Japanese troops on Peleliu Island: “The opposing forces were like two scorpions in a bottle. One was annihilated, the other nearly so.”

In his single-volume account of the entire war, Delivered From Evil, Leckie described Peleliu—focal point of The Pacific episodes five, six, and seven—as “the fiercest, bloodiest battle in the Japanese war.”

On Peleliu, landings at White Beach One were led by legendary Marine officer Lewis “Chesty” Puller, portrayed in the series by actor William Sadler.

I visited White Beach One and wrote about it and Puller in my book. The beach today is overgrown with jungle. There’s little left from wartime to see. About 150 yards inland, however, is an interesting memorial erected after the war—a plaque attached to a rock honoring Marine Captain George P. Hunt, who later served as managing editor of Life magazine in the 1960s. Not the sort of thing you normally expect to find on far-flung rocks in the Pacific.

Finding WWII Sites in the Pacific

The idea behind my book was to introduce readers to the Pacific War by cataloging thousands of extant traces of the conflict that can still be found in the region, from those countless postwar plaques to forgotten invasion beaches to rusting Corsair fighter planes in the middle of the Palauan jungle to sunken Japanese transports in Truk Lagoon to the massive museums and memorials constructed in places like Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nanjing.

Because the British are the world’s great historians, the WWII trail in Europe has long been carefully preserved. Beginning with a 1987 hike in Guam, when my brother and I tried in vain to locate a Japanese tank “graveyard” in the central mountains of Yona, I discovered that this hasn’t been the case in the Pacific. Remote island locations and postwar neglect left many of the Pacific’s most important battlefields virtually untouched. And undocumented.

Living in Japan in the 1980s and ’90s, and spending significant time in the Philippines and around region, I worked over fifteen years compiling my Pacific War book with the idea of helping like-minded history geeks locate these historic sites. I did so because no guide covering Pacific War sites existed at the time.

After watching The Pacific, if you want to get to Alligator Creek, Henderson Field, Bloody Nose Ridge, or any of the other locations covered in the series, The 25 Best World War II Sites: Pacific Theater remains a unique resource. My “Smile” and “Hellholes” book shave sold better, but I often think my two World War II books will have more lasting value.

The Pacific book also includes a bit on Shuri Castle, a critical Japanese defensive position on Okinawa. After a protracted battle, victorious U.S. First Marines raised a Confederate flag above the ruined castle in honor of campaign commander Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., whose father had been a Confederate general. I’ll be interested to see if Hanks and company include that nugget of Southern military heritage in their series.

It was a long war and it’s a relatively short series, but I’m still sorry that many major areas won’t be covered in The Pacific. The Marianas. The Philippines. The China-Burma-India theater or “CBI” as it was known, which produced George McDonald Fraser’s astonishing memoir Quartered Safe Out Here.

Fraser went on to fame as the author of the magnificent Flashman series of historical novels. As a smooth-faced Brit foot soldier in one of the most unforgiving environments of the war, however, he found material to fill what military historian John Keegan says ranks “among the classics of military autobiography.” Also one of my favorites.

Okinawa vs. Normandy D-Days

So, what do we have to look forward to in The Pacific? Blood, horror, atrocity, sickness, exhaustion—and plenty of it.

No jungle fighting in the Pacific was as savage as it was in New Guinea (episode four). The fetid, steaming jungles there were home to a variety of poisonous plants and tropical diseases. Logistical nightmares, equipment failures, and, above all, rain and mud, bedeviled both sides. The campaign generated one of the highest disease-related casualty rates in American military history.

With Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, Hanks and Spielberg have taught an entire generation about D-Day in Normandy, but with The Pacific I hope the vastly underappreciated amphibious assault on Okinawa finally gets the big-stage respect it deserves. This might happen because Leckie was there and reported on the unparalleled achievement: “Never before had there been an invasion armada the equal of the 1,600 seagoing ships carrying 545,000 American GIs and Marines that steamed across the Pacific. In firepower, troops, and tonnage it eclipsed even the more famous D day in Normandy.”

In Normandy, the Allies moved 155,000 men and equipment across about 100 miles of English Channel. The American force in Okinawa that Leckie called the “monster of consumption” had to be supplied 7,500 miles from the home country’s western shore. No amphibious operation in military history comes close to matching it on a scale of distance and enormity.

The producers of The Pacific say they haven’t glossed over the trauma and deep racist conviction that imbued the war from start to finish. It’s evident, however, that other than dropping a few carefully placed “J” bombs and hurried scenes of torture and dismemberment, American audiences, browbeaten by decades of politically correct training, won’t be given credit for having the stomach to deal with honest depictions of the living nightmares and racial evil that came to fruition on those distant islands.

Then again, how could that terror be recreated? After the unearthly horrors of Peleliu, in which both sides declined to take prisoners and both sides defiled corpses, Sledge wrote, “Something in me died.”

Even today, it’s impossible to walk the Pacific’s battlefields and not come away with an awful, visceral understanding of the devastation and waste of the war. No TV show can communicate that.

Still, it’s strange how from that all of that death, so many stories continue to take life. Leckie and Sledge’s. My own. Hanks and Spielberg’s. And soon enough, those of a new generation, itself already waist-deep in America’s inevitable arena.

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