Sick and immobile, I still managed to breeze through all 14.5 hours of Ken Burns’ The War on Netflix last week. Through my wheezing and coughing I was captivated by the 2007 documentary masterpiece on WWII. If you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest you check it out.
A woman named Sascha Weinzheimer is interviewed throughout the series. Her family was originally from Sacramento, but moved to the Philippines due to her father’s business. The war had started, and soon Sascha and her family found themselves as civilian prisoners of war. They were held at the Santo Tomas Camp, Manila.
The Japanese soldiers would take photos of Sascha and her brother to use as propaganda. They wanted to send the photos back to the the U.S. to “prove” how the people at Santo Tomas Camp were being treated extremely well. However, Sascha paints a much grimmer story. There was lack of food and the conditions of the camp were not the least bit sanitary.
Sascha explains her mother’s condition in 1944 and why her brother looked so well nourished given the dire living conditions. It reminds me of a story from Lydia Maksymowicz when she was kept prisoner as a child in Auschwitz:
1. Toward the end, my mother was 73 pounds.
2. And she nursed my brother until he was three.
3. So if you see a picture of him during this time, he is chubby.
4. That’s because of Mother’s Milk.
5. But that depleted her.
The underlying theme of the importance of mother is threaded throughout the documentary.
Bill Lansford is a veteran Mexican American soldier from Los Angeles. His honesty commentary about some of the atrocities of war (even on “our” side) provided the documentary with some strikingly poignant moments. However, his explanation of a soldier dying in the middle of the night was the most powerful story of the episode:
And then he began to call for his mother.
I thought that was only in the movies, but it isn’t.
Joseph Medicine Crow was at war and wrestling with German soldier. He was about to kill the German man when he called out for his mother.
Then, his last words were, “Mama, mama.”
When he said that word, “Mama,” I opened my ears.
I let him go.
Then there were the legendary female riveters who put their children in childcare during the day while they worked all day for the war effort.
Rosie the Riveter Would Bring her child
In all of her headgear.
And her togs that she did her riveting in.
And drop her precious little baby off.
And go down to work all day and come back at 5:00
And pick the child up.
There were also women who looked after soldiers as their nurses and surrogate mothers. Emily Lewis was working as a nurse during WWII and took care of wounded soldiers fresh off the battle field. They men were often in their early twenties, like her, and terrified. Sometimes, she said she would just hold the soldiers, because it was what they needed the most in that moment:
I just had to put my arms around ’em and hold ’em.
Some other compelling moments in the documentary (I really hope I am talking you into watching this because it is so good) came when racial disparities were discussed by the people who witnessed it first-hand.
Daniel Inouye is a Japanese American who volunteered in a segregated infantry on the frontline (a Japanese American soldiers’ only option) during a time when people of Japanese heritage were being held in concentration camps by the American government.
Before he went to war, his father left him with these words:
“This country has been good to us…
We owe a lot to this country.
Do not dishonor this country.
Above all do not dishonor this family.
If you must die…die in honor.”
Then there was Willie Rushton who volunteered for frontline duty with his unit when they were only supposed to unload ammunition and leave. He was wounded in battle and taken to a nearby hospital ship where he was the only black solider on board. During his stay, he asked if he could get a haircut (a barber was on board for soldiers). The barber refused to cut Rushton’s hair. The other soldiers on board began telling the barber that he needed to cut Rushton’s hair, explaining it didn’t need to be fancy, he just needed some hair off his head. The barber continued to refuse, and that is when the Captain came downstairs and yelled at the barber for not giving a soldier on board a hair cut. In the end, Rushton got his haircut.
I want you to cut his hair, you know, just cut his hair.
There were plenty of other stories that were much different than Rushton’s, but there was something extremely hopeful about his story in a time so saturated in hate and racism. That barber was the minority view in the story.
Oh how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.