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The War: A World Without War

Airs Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Soldiers transport a wounded man, Okinawa, 1945.

THE WAR, a seven-part documentary series directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, explores the history and horror of the Second World War from an American perspective by following the fortunes of so-called ordinary men and women who become caught up in one of the greatest cataclysms in human history.

Six years in the making, this epic 15-hour film focuses on the stories of citizens from four geographically distributed American towns — Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and the tiny farming town of Luverne, Minnesota. These four communities stand in for — and could represent — any town in the United States that went through the war's four devastating years.

Witnesses from the Home Front

The power of THE WAR comes from the intimate, personal stories of dozens of American citizens who lived through the war. They moved to booming “war towns,” worked in defense industries, made the best of life in internment camps, contributed to the war effort, met servicemen and fell in love, and worried about the boys they knew who were overseas. Select a name to see a biography and a list of video interviews, photographs and objects related to that witness.

A soldier kneels next to deceased bodies, Okinawa, April 4, 1945.
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Above: A soldier kneels next to deceased bodies, Okinawa, April 4, 1945.

Soldiers in Okinawa, May 8, 1945 (VE-Day).
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Above: Soldiers in Okinawa, May 8, 1945 (VE-Day).

The Veterans History Project

PBS and Florentine Films have partnered with the Veterans History Project (VHP) in a massive effort to capture the stories of men and women who experienced the war first-hand before the generation that witnessed World War II has passed. The Veterans History Project is part of the Library of Congress and honors American war veterans and civilian workers who supported them by preserving stories of their service to our country. VHP collects and archives the one-of-a-kind stories that represent the diversity of the veterans who served our country — veterans from all conflicts, from all branches of the military, all ranks, all races and ethnicities.

Individuals from each community take the viewer through their own personal and quite often harrowing journeys into war, painting vivid portraits of how the war dramatically altered their lives and those of their neighbors, as well as the country they helped to save for generations to come. Winner of three Primetime Emmys.

"A World Without War" (Part Seven) - In spring 1945, although the numbers of dead and wounded have more than doubled since D-Day, the people of Mobile, Sacramento, Waterbury and Luverne understand all too well that there will be more bad news from the battlefield before the war can end. That March, President Franklin Roosevelt warns in a newsreel that the final battle with Japan could stretch on for years.

In the Pacific, Eugene Sledge of Mobile is again forced to enter what he calls "the abyss" in the battle for Okinawa — the gateway to Japan. Glenn Frazier of Alabama, one of 168,000 Allied prisoners of war still in Japanese hands, celebrates the arrival of carrier planes overhead, but despairs of getting out of Japan alive.

In mid-April, Americans are shocked by President Roosevelt's death; many do not even know the name of their new president, Harry Truman. Meanwhile, as Allied forces rapidly push across Germany from the east and west, American and British troops, including Burnett Miller of Sacramento, Dwain Luce of Mobile and Ray Leopold of Waterbury, discover for themselves the true horrors of the Nazi's industrialized barbarism — at Buchenwald, Ludwigslust, Dachau, Hadamar, Mauthausen and hundreds of other concentration camps.

Finally, on May 8, with their country in ruins and their fuehrer dead by his own hand, the Nazis surrender. But as Eugene Sledge remembers, to the Marines and soldiers still fighting in the Pacific, "Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon." When the battle on Okinawa is finally over in June, 92,000 Japanese soldiers and tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians have been killed.

As the Americans prepare to move on to Japan itself, more terrible losses seem inevitable. Allied leaders at Potsdam set forth the terms under which they will agree to end the war, but for most of Japan's rulers, unconditional surrender remains unthinkable.

Then, on August 6, 1945, under orders from President Truman, an American plane drops a single atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, obliterating 40,000 men, women and children in an instant; 100,000 more die of burns and radiation within days and another 100,000 will succumb to radiation poisoning over the next five years.

Two days later, Russia declares war against Japan. On August 9, a second American atomic bomb destroys the city of Nagasaki. The rulers of Japan decide at last to give up — the greatest cataclysm comes to an end.

In the following months and years, millions of young men return home - to pick up the pieces of their lives and to try to learn how to live in a world without war.

Video

Extended Preview: The War

Above: THE WAR, a seven-part series directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, tells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns.

Video

The War: Near Execution

Above: After surviving the "Bataan Death March," Mobile's Glenn Frazier recounts a near-death experience from a Japanese prison camp.

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The War: Maurice Bell Watches Tarawa

Above: Mobile's Maurice Bell recounts the landing at Tarawa, a tiny Pacific island, as he observed it from the deck of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

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The War: "Killed Men"

Above: Quentin Aanenson, a fighter pilot from Luverne, MN, explains what it was like to find the enemy in his gun sights -- and pulling the trigger for the first time.

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The War: Sidney Phillips: "Lapse into bad language"

Above: Sidney Phillips worries that his colorful wartime vocabulary might follow him home to Mobile, Alabama.

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The War: "Bulge broke right there"

Above: Mobile's Tom Galloway finds himself on the frozen front lines as the shells start falling in The Battle of The Bulge.