Andrew Dys

Images from 'The War' bring reality home

Students, maybe 60, at Winthrop University ambled into a campus auditorium one night this week.

Credit was offered for showing up. They checked cell phones and talked quietly. Down front sat two gray-haired guys named Bill Homan and Bob Christ. Almost 170 years between them. Christ carried a cane.

Somebody started the special hourlong screening of a PBS movie about World War II that begins airing tonight, called "The War." The lights went dim, and in about five seconds, the audience was silent because splintered bone and bodies washing up in the surf on some unpronounceable Pacific island makes you quiet.

This was not politicians trying to drum up support for a war, which is all these students know at age 20 or 21. This was real people, Americans who volunteered and knew they would probably die and did, because that is what had to be done.

A pair that lived because they were lucky not to be on that screen with bullets through their brains, Homan from the Army and Christ from the Navy sat and watched in the dark as these students sat watching in the dark, too.

Somehow, a torpedo hit Christ's ship in the Pacific and did not blow up him and hundreds more. These students watched the movie of the ones who were not lucky and a few others who lived to tell about it who were interviewed.

A guy with sad eyes over 80 years old from Luverne, Minn., said in the movie that people like him "never questioned the necessity" of that war.

Then another guy talked, and there were pictures of dead children and women and babies.

The soldiers on the screen from the 1940s were not lean. They were rail-thin, bone-skinny. Their eyes were sunk in their skulls.

Those were the ones who were alive.

It is a movie that uses the real words that men who somehow survive a war that killed 60 million people use. "Whorehouse" and "Hell" and "Jap."

The word "die" was used so many times I lost count.

The movie showed how when the Marines stormed a place called Tarawa in the Pacific, some tried to censor the news of the carnage. A president named Roosevelt ordered the floating bodies footage be released.

A guy near me said, "No way that would happen today."

He's right. And we should all be ashamed.

When is the last time we saw footage, or a picture on the front page of this newspaper or any other, of what the wars Iraq and Afghanistan really are? Death.

The movie goes on, and one old man says the words, "It smelled like burnt flesh."

He was talking about Saipan, another island; 16,525 American dead, wounded, missing or maimed.

At least two lived who weren't in the movie but, like all people who will watch this movie, I closed my eyes and saw somebody I knew. They were tenant farmers' sons, children of immigrants, two of nine children. They enlisted like millions just like them. Johnny Morrow from the Army and Lee "Jiggs" Morrow from the Marines. They met on that Saipan beach, during the invasion, and somehow they didn't get a bullet through their hearts as they embraced for the first time in two years since both joined the war.

They were my mother's brothers.

Millions of Americans volunteered to get maimed or die back then, and now nobody sees anybody die although that is what happens. We are too weak to handle the death.

The next morning, I called a guy named Ned Wisher, who worked in the Bleachery mill forever until he got too old, then started as the chief bailiff for York County's civil court. He is 85 years old.

Wisher joined the Navy in World War II, and a suicide plane hit his ship. His ship also bombed the Normandy beach. Somehow, he lived. I asked him why he joined all those years ago.

"My duty," Wisher said.

I asked Wisher if he ever talks with people who did what he and millions of others did and he said, "We are almost all gone."

Then Wisher told me he had to go. He had to go to work.

The Ken Burns seven-part movie "The War" begins airing tonight at 8 on PBS.

Fore more on the series, go to www.pbs.org/thewar

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