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Filmmaker Ken Burns Examines Everyone's War

America commemorates its fallen soldiers each year on Memorial Day, the last Monday in May. The day honors not only the dead, but all Americans who served in the time of war. Filmmaker and historian Ken Burns chronicles their stories in his new seven-part documentary, The War.

It is a stark picture of World War Two that draws on documents like this letter by a soldier who fought in the Pacific: "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 6500 Japs were killed. There is a very strong odor from the beach. It smells like burnt flesh."

This account and hundreds of others like it weave an intricate story of struggle, suffering, courage and perseverance of the Americans who fought during the war.

"We concentrated just on the two theaters of war that Americans were principally involved in, " says Burns. "The European (which will also include North Africa) and the Pacific. And we followed them simultaneously, chronologically."

The documentary also follows what was happening in the United States "to see what people were like in the shared sacrifice, what they were doing for the war effort, how they were worrying, how they were grieving, how they were joyously reuniting with soldiers coming back," Burns says. "It helps to fix the importance of people if you know who's worried about them."

Katharine Philips remembers how she agonized over her loved one's fate in Tarawa, at the Pacific warfront. "When we saw those first pictures of Tarawa we were overcome, just overcome. It was just devastating to us."

Such extraordinary tales, by ordinary people, paint a very personal picture of war.

Burns's documentary does not focus on politicians, diplomats or generals, or on speeches or treaties. Instead, it throws light on common folk, recalling the grinding days of combat, endless nights, wide awake, waiting for the war to end, for loved ones to come home.

To tell this story, Ken Burns says he randomly picked four American towns. Waterbury, Connecticut in the Northeast, was chosen to represent an industrial center. "Called 'Brass City' in the middle of the 19th century it made everything -- lipstick holders and cocktail shakers -- and turned around into becoming an impressive war machine," Burns says. Mobile, Alabama, in the south, was a "sleepy shipbuilding town that just exploded." Sacramento, California, became a military center with three bases, and Burns notes, "it had a significant Japanese-American population." The filmmaker says they also wanted a small town, "an American town of 3,000. We found it in Laverne, Minnesota."

One of the documents highlighting the feeling of the people from that small town is a newspaper article from that time. Actor Tom Hanks reads the article in the documentary.

"Laverne, Minnesota, August 1941. Miss Agat Ryland, who is in town visiting her brother, knows what it is to see vast sections of the city ripped to ruin by German bombs. And she remembers the nights that London burned, how she could read a letter by the unbelievable glare of the far-off flames."

Another voice in Burns' The War is that of American veteran Burnett Miller, who recalls fighting in the middle of a winter storm. "We crossed France, went through parts of Belgium and hit the Bulge in a big snowstorm. Our vehicles became almost inoperable."

Miller, who comes from Sacremento, is one of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, and one of the few sharing his experience with the rest of the world, not only through Ken Burns' documentary, but also through the Veterans History Project.

Every day, about 1000 World War II veterans die, their stories untold. In an effort to gather firsthand recollections of the American men and women who served during wartime, the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, launched the project in 2000.

"There are 17 million living wartime veterans," says Bob Patrick, project director and a veteran himself. Those 17 million include a few veterans from World War I right up to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We have 50,000 interviews. So, we have a little ways to go in trying to collect everyone's story. In a lot of cases it's family members and friends sitting down with the veterans in their lives and doing an interview with them."

Ken Burns's documentary is expected to spark wide interest in the Library of Congress Veterans' Project. Burns has also attracted some negative publicity, for not including war time accounts of Hispanic-American heroes. But Burns says the voices he uses represent all Americans who were touched by the last global war: soldiers, sailors, medics, wives, children. It was everyone's war.