At the end of the first episode of THE PACIFIC, the Tom Hanks/Seven Spielberg war drama airing this March on HBO, a Marine celebrates his birthday on the island of Guadalcanal. Members of his platoon sing to him, “Happy Birthday to You.” But when they get to the second verse, instead of “How old are you now?” they ask rather darkly, “How ****** are you now? … You’re surely ****** now.” The men are heard chuckling as they disappear into the jungle just before the screen fades to black.
Gallows humor but entirely appropriate. The first major U.S. offensive in the Pacific, the Guadalcanal campaign lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 and claimed the lives of more than 7,000 Americans. (The Japanese lost closer to 30,000.) It was a shocking way for America to enter the war. The jungles were teeming with malaria and other diseases. Supply lines were disrupted, leading to deprivation. The enemy committed unspeakable atrocities.
This is also how THE PACIFIC begins. Since Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the HBO hit miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), there has been much anticipation for Spielberg, Hanks, and fellow executive producer Gary Goetzman to set their sights on the epic World War II battles of the Pacific. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, also about Guadalcanal, lost its way under the weight of its many stars like Sean Penn, John Travolta, John Cusack, and George Clooney. Its sense of moral equivalence was also a bit much, as when we hear the thoughts of a dead Japanese soldier who asks, “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”
Given the green light by HBO, the cast and crew of THE PACIFIC spent months filming in Australia while even more time was spent on research—the series focuses on the real-life tribulations of three Marines: Robert Leckie (played by James Badge Dale), John Basilone (Jon Seda), and Eugene B. Sledge (Joe Mazzello, who audiences might remember as the child actor who starred in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park). In addition, veteran actor William Sadler does a superb turn as then-Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller. The series is also based in part on the memoirs of Leckie and Sledge—the latter’s book, With the Old Breed, is widely regarded as a military classic. According to historian Victor Davis Hanson, “within two decades of publication, that draft became acknowledged as the finest literary account to emerge about the Pacific war.”
HBO’s new ten-part miniseries, set to air in March, vividly depicts the savagery of the war in the Pacific, reminding viewers of the profound differences from the war fought in the European theater. “The question we ask in THE PACIFIC,” explains Hanks, “is how were they able to go through all of this?”
As historians Michael and Elizabeth Norman note in their gripping account of the Bataan Death March, Tears in the Darkness, basic training in the Japanese Imperial Army was a hell all its own:
Men were beaten till their teeth fell out or their eyes swelled shut or they lost their hearing, “beaten like a dog!” one recruit wrote home, “beaten like a bag of flour.”
The end result?
When the first-year privates finally finished their pitiless apprenticeship, they were promoted to senior privates, stewards to a new cohort of conscripts. Now the bullied became the bullies themselves. One group of primitives had created from itself another group of primitives, and all the groups from all the camps across all the home islands formed one great primal horde, 2,287,000 men who had been savaged to produce an army of savage intent.
This was the army that awaited Robert Leckie, John Basilone, and Eugene Sledge.
It takes approximately 45 minutes until the first firefight erupts in Episode One of THE PACIFIC—an impressive feat when one takes into account the amount of exposition required for the three main characters. (But it should come as no surprise how effortlessly this comes off considering the director of the series opener is Tim Van Patten of Sopranos fame.) And though 45 minutes may seem a while, once the Marines of the 1st Division begin to make their way into the dense jungles of Guadalcanal, an overwhelming sense of foreboding amid the eerie sounds of the wild will have the viewer wishing to be safely back home. Alas, there is no escape and, with a sudden jolt, the enemy is engaged, albeit briefly.
Much of the fighting on Guadalcanal took place in violent spurts such as around Alligator Creek, which also occurred in the middle of the night. The bloody chaos that ensues will leave the audience as confused as the troops—precisely the point. Moving figures are illuminated by either bursts of gunfire or the occasional flare. The rest can only be heard—the terrifying sounds of bullets zipping by, the screams of men.
Robert Leckie is the first to witness the horror of war. Reluctant as he may be, he dutifully kills. He also watches as medics attend to a Japanese soldier barely alive only to watch a grenade roll out from under him, blowing the well-intentioned Americans to pieces. This results in an act of vengeance in which Leckie’s fellow Marines taunt and wound another Japanese infantryman who is demanding to be finished off. (Leckie acts justly by indeed finishing him off.) While other Americans are picking through the possessions of the enemy dead, Leckie reflects on the contents of one Japanese soldier: a stitched baby doll and a photo of a woman, presumably the dead man’s wife. He clearly harbors some remorse. The question is: Will the viewer?
Without a doubt, many Americans at the time had views of the “Japs” that were highly racial. In his memoir, Eugene Sledge describes how “a passionate hatred for the Japanese burned through all Marines I knew,” a hatred reinforced by such incidents as the ambush of a Marine patrol on a mission of mercy.
Twenty-five men, led by Colonel Frank Goettge, had gone out looking for starving Japanese who, according to one prisoner, were willing to surrender in return for aid. It turned out to be an ambush, in which only three of the 25 Marines survived.
Sledge himself acknowledges his fellow Marines did things they shouldn’t have, such as looting enemy corpses. “But,” he adds, “I never saw a Marine commit the kind of barbaric mutilation the Japanese committed if they had access to our dead.” (What he saw cannot even be described in this review and may in fact be too graphic to be shown in this series.)
Right behind Leckie is John Basilone, a Marine legend who actually served in the Army in the Philippines prior to enlisting (hence his nickname, “Manila John”). The choice by the series’ creators to tail him is a brilliant one, considering his heroics earned him the Medal of Honor. And lastly there is Eugene Sledge, aka “Sledgehammer,” whose lingering heart murmur kept him from immediately enlisting. But Sledge did eventually arrive in the Pacific Theater in 1944 and, far from realizing his “fear” of missing the war, faced the enemy at Peleliu and then at Okinawa, some of the bloodiest campaigns of the entire war. And while many viewers might never have heard of the tiny coral island of Peleliu prior to watching THE PACIFIC, they will not soon forget the heart-breaking sacrifice of so many Americans (though military historians to this day question the necessity of taking it).
The action of THE PACIFIC is sprawling—the reportedly $200 million budget makes it the most expensive film project in HBO history—but audiences shouldn’t lose track of the plotlines. At the onset of each episode, a narration is provided (complete with Tom Hanks voiceover) along with a 1940s-style black-and-white globe marking the advances of the Japanese and then of the Americans. Even more effective are the octogenarian veterans who precede the opening scenes and share their own experiences on camera, remembering the horrific battles and just how scared they were. There was a sense of dread that the enemy was not simply going to surrender. They would have to be flushed out, often with the use of a flamethrower. (To get a sense of the enemy’s fanaticism: Of the 4,386 Japanese defenders on the island of Tarawa, only 17 were taken alive.)
“War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waster,” wrote Sledge. “Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other—and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.”
Such are the sentiments that pervade THE PACIFIC, a miniseries that remembers the courage of our men in uniform, their service to our country, and their sacrifice, in Sledge’s words, “so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace that was purchased at such a high cost.” It is a miniseries that is not to be missed.
Victorino Matus is deputy managing editor of The Weekly Standard.