For Ken Burns, a 'War' Not as Advertised When Ken Burns set his sights on World War II, he found a far different conflict than the "good war" we've come to know. His new PBS documentary, The War, tells the stories of young soldiers who are now dying off by the thousands.

For Ken Burns, a 'War' Not as Advertised

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Ken Burns vowed never to make another war film after finishing his exhaustive 1990 series "The Civil War." Still, for years World War II veterans urged Burns to tell their stories. And then he read an alarming statistic: 1,000 veterans of that war die each day.

Come this Sunday, PBS will debut "The War." Six years in the making, Ken Burns' series includes accounts from World War II veterans like fighter pilot Quentin Aanenson, here reading from a letter he wrote but never mailed to his future wife.

(Soundbite of movie, "The War")

Mr. QUENTIN AANENSON (World War II Veteran): (Reading) I live in a world of death. I have watched my friends die in a variety of violent ways. So far I have done my duty in this war. I have never aborted a mission or failed to dive on a target. I have lived for my dreams for the future, but like everything else around me, my dreams are dying too.

MONTAGNE: Quentin Aanenson is from Luverne, Minnesota. Ken Burns chose that town and three others - Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama - to frame his documentary. It allowed him to evoke World War II's impact on the home front and on those who left home in order to fight it.

Mr. KEN BURNS (Director and Producer, "The War"): I felt that most Second World War documentaries never told the story of the war simultaneously. That is to say, you have a film that's about the Pacific theater. You have a film about the Europeans theater. And if you do the homefront, it's, you know, in a separate film. And we felt that we wanted to do all three simultaneously; and the way to do that was to anchor it in these, at least initially, peaceful places.

And so we used the peacefulness, not only in contrast to the battle scenes, but in contrast to a kind of developing psychological complication as blue stars turned to gold in windows all across America, as sons are lost in strange, faraway places with hard-to-pronounce names.

MONTAGNE: One of the towns - Luverne, Minnesota - Al Macintosh ran this little newspaper and had this sort of American dream of running his own little newspaper, could have gone to a bigger city, but this is what he wanted to do. And ultimately he tells the story in his columns in a way that is so touching and really offsets some of the horrors that you see in other parts.

Let's play a reading on one of those columns by the actor Tom Hanks.

(Soundbite of movie, "The War")

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (Reading) Somehow the gossip grapevine had heard that there was a telegram coming through after 6:00 P.M. last Friday for Mr. and Mrs. Ray Lester of Magnolia. Ray Lester heard about it and his heart was heavy. He started walking down the street. On the way, he met Scotty Dewar, the depot agent. Which one is it, asked Lester, because there were four boys to worry about in that family. After being told, he went sorrowfully home to break the news to his wife. Al Macintosh, Rock County Star Herald.

Mr. BURNS: He had a weekly column called More or Less Daily Chaff, wonderfully appropriate for the Northern Plains and in this weekly column seemed to understand better than just about anybody what was going on in the war, what it meant. And we're able to transform Macintosh into really the one-man Greek chorus of the film.

(Soundbite of movie, "The War")

Mr. HANKS: (Reading) Mrs. Henry Smoke(ph) went over to Sioux Falls with her youngest boy Harold, 17. She had gone to give her consent to his joining the Navy. She didn't know that while she was there a telegram had come to her home in Luverne, telling her of the death of her son in France - Private First Class Herman Smoke.

Mr. BURNS: And then we went to Normandy and in that impressive sea of white crosses found his one singular cross and kind of personalized the war. And without Al almost as an unseen force guiding us, I don't think the film would have had that kind of dimension that we were seeking.

MONTAGNE: In contrast to the columns and the stories from the homefront - from the towns back home - there were many other stories from those who had fought and were looking back and telling you what they experienced. There was footage from the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, which, just to say, it was the largest surrender by the U.S. Army in history.

And we hear veteran Glenn Frazier from Alabama describe what was happening.

(Soundbite of movie, "The War")

Mr. GLEN FRAZIER (World War II Veteran): If we had known what was ahead of us at the beginning of the Bataan Death March, I would have taken death. I saw people that had their throats cut because they would take their bayonets and stick it out through the corner of the truck at night, and it would just be high enough to cut their throats. I marched six days and seven nights and never stopped. I did not have but one sip of water and no food. Now, they say that you can't do this, but I did.

MONTAGNE: In that clip, that really gets to some of the horrors that you have in this film.

Mr. BURNS: And you begin to understand that this is a far different war than we've sort of, in the last decades, been led to believe. You know, as we call it the Good War in the face of the more ambivalent and ambiguous wars that we've been in since the Second World War. And it's time, particularly for us, as the veterans are leaving the scene, to honor what they did when they were teenagers. We asked them to become professional killers. They did their job very well. They saw bad things. They did bad things. They lost good friends. And they came back and they put a lot of that information in the deepest, darkest recesses of their souls. And it has been our privilege in recent years that some of those folks have now begun to speak.

MONTAGNE: Ken Burns, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. BURNS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Ken Burns' series, "The War," begins Sunday night on PBS. Video clips are at

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