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Filmmaker Ken Burns Examines World War II in 'The War'


American filmmaker Ken Burns tells the story of World War II from a unique American perspective in his new seven-part documentary, "The War."

An American soldier in the island of Saipan during World War II writes : "It rained a while this morning. Yesterday and today our artillery on the beach gave the Japs an awful pounding. The press news said that in the first couple of weeks of fighting on Saipan over 6,500 Japs were killed. There is a very strong odor from the beach. It smells like burnt flesh."

It is a stark picture of World War II. This account and hundreds of others like it weave an intricate story of struggle, suffering, courage and perseverance. Award winning filmmaker Ken Burns brings these stories back to life in his new documentary "The War."

"We concentrated just on the two theaters of war that Americans were principally involved in -- the European, which will also include North Africa, and the Pacific," says the filmmaker. "And we followed them simultaneously, chronologically and we also go back home to see what people were like in the shared sacrifice."

Katharine Philips of Mobile, Alabama remebers how she felt when she saw a newsreel of wounded, wary American soldiers fighting in Tarawa. "When we saw those first pictures of Tarawa," she says "we were overcome, just overcome. It was just devastating to us."

These extraordinary tales, by ordinary people, paint a very personal picture of war. Just common folk, recall the grinding days of combat, the endless nights, the waiting for the war to end. To tell this story, Burns randomly picked four American towns.

"Waterbury, Connecticut in the Northeast, called "Brass City' in the middle of the 19th century, made everything - lipstick holders and cocktail shakers and turned around into becoming an impressive war machine. Mobile, Alabama -- sleepy shipbuilding town that just exploded. Sacramento, California, ended up with three bases. Also had a significant Japanese-American population and then we wanted a tiny small town, an American town of three thousand. We found it in Luverne, Minnesota," says Ken Burns.

Burnett Miller of Sacramento is one of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II. He remembers the battle of the Bulge.

"We crossed France, went through parts of Belgium and hit the Bulge in a big snowstorm. Our vehicles became almost inoperable," he says.

Every day, about 1,000 World War II veterans die, their stories often untold. Burns says that was one reason why he filmed the documentary. Another was a survey he saw that showed that a large number of high school seniors in the United States think Americans fought with the Germans against the Russians during the Second World War .

Burns says the extremely wide scope of the war made shooting the documentary a challenging but essential undertaking. He said his series aims to enlighten people on the nature of any war.

"In the end, you begin to realize that the experience of war, this lie of civilization, is the same across time," says Burns. "It is true for our current actions right now, it's true 5,000 years ago. And that what soldiers experience in battle is universal and the rest of us are required to know what it's like. This moment when paradoxically your life is most threatened when violent death could have happened at any moment you live your life to the fullest and we were anxious to find out what those moments of revelation were like."

After criticism that he had not included the voices of Hispanic veterans in his documentary, Burns added their stories to his series. "The War" airs on American public television.

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