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The War: When Things Get Tough

Airs Wednesday, August 1, 2012 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Two soldiers in Geich, Germany, pause for a cigarette behind a tank on December 11, 1944.

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.

Waterbury, Connecticut
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Above: Waterbury, Connecticut

Mobile, Alabama
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Above: Mobile, Alabama

Sacramento, California, Capitol dome.
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Above: Sacramento, California, Capitol dome.

Luverne, Minnesota
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Above: Luverne, Minnesota

A private stands before a damaged altar in Acerno, Italy, on September 23, 1943.
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Above: A private stands before a damaged altar in Acerno, Italy, on September 23, 1943.

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.

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.

"When Things Get Tough" (Part Two) - By January 1943, Americans have been at war for more than a year. The Germans still occupy most of Western Europe; the Allies can't agree on a plan or timetable to dislodge them. American troops, including Charles Mann of Luverne, are now ashore in North Africa.

At Kasserine Pass, Erwin Rommel's seasoned veterans quickly overwhelm the poorly led and ill-equipped Americans, but after George Patton assumes command, the Americans begin to beat back the Germans. In the process, thousands of soldiers learn to adopt the outlook that "killing is a craft," as reporter Ernie Pyle explains to readers back home.

Across the country, in cities such as Mobile and Waterbury, nearly all manufacturing is converted to the war effort. Like millions of other women, Emma Belle Petcher of Mobile enters the industrial work force, becoming an airplane inspector, while her city struggles to cope with a population explosion.

In Europe, thousands of American airmen are asked to brave flak and German fighter planes on daylight bombing missions over enemy territory. All of them, including Earl Burke of Sacramento, know that each time they return to the air their chances of surviving the war diminish.

Allied troops invade Sicily and then southern Italy. With them is Babe Ciarlo of Waterbury, whose division loses 3,265 men in 56 days of fighting — and moves less than 50 miles.

As 1943 ends, Allied leaders draw up plans for the long-delayed invasion of Europe; Hitler put tens of thousands of laborers to work strengthening his coastal defenses. For the people of Mobile, Sacramento, Waterbury and Luverne, things are bound to get tougher still.

Up Next: The next five episodes will follow on August 2nd at 10 p.m., 5th at 9 p.m., 6th at 9 p.m., 7th at 9 p.m., 8th at 9 p.m., 2012 on KPBS Television.

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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.

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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: "Change your underwear"

Above: Mobile's GI Dwain Luce talks about luck and finds a rare bit of humor in the trenches.

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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.