World War II on Film: “Crusade in the Pacific” (1951)

26 Nov

I’ve been immersed in World War II research lately. What started it was the random discovery of tons of material on the war on YouTube. I began watching all sorts of documentaries and collections of original footage from the war. I then plunged into my collection of Hollywood movies on the subject, watching or re-watching 18 so far. Then, and most importantly, I pulled books about the  war off my history shelves and began reading chapters on the subjects I’d just seen in the films and documentaries. For example, after watching a TV documentary about Guadalcanal and then a movie in which the battle is featured, I would look for chapters on Guadalcanal in various books to get the full story. My emphasis has been on the war with Japan and I began reading The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945, written by eminent historian John Toland and published in 1970, in which the author interviewed many Japanese participants and read through Japanese transcripts and documents to get their side of the story. I’m over halfway through it.

There’s a great deal to cover, too much in one blog entry, so I’ve decided to focus on my chief discovery, a 26-part documentary series made for television, “Crusade in the Pacific” (1951), which features lots of incredible footage of the war in the Pacific, including many sequences taken from Japanese sources, so we get to see what the war looked like to the Japanese.

I discovered the series on YouTube and liked what I saw so much that I bought a DVD box set with all 26 episodes from Amazon that was released by MPI Home Video.

The series starts with Japanese incursions into China, beginning in 1931, and conditions in the Asian countries that would subsequently be occupied by the Japanese, followed by an episode about Japan’s actions before the war, leading up to Pearl Harbor, featuring pre-war footage taken in Japan. Most major campaigns of the Pacific War get their own episodes (e.g. the Philippines, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Bougainville, the Marianas, Makin and Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, etc.), although the Battle of Midway inexplicably gets short shrift, showing up in the last five minutes of episode #6, “The Navy Holds – 1942.”

The series was a production of March of Time Television, a spin-off of the March of Time newsreel series that ran in movie theaters from 1935 to 1951. Westbrook Van Voorhis, March of Time’s narrator, provides “Crusade” with its wall-to-wall full-bodied stentorian narration, written in the triumphal language of the victor with frequent with wartime jargon such as “mopping up,” to describe rooting out remaining enemy soldiers and installations, and “softening up” enemy positions by nonstop bombing attacks. He also uses “occidental” and “oriental” a lot to pinpoint cultural differences between east and west, along with clichés about “the inscrutable east.” The narration also sometimes puts thoughts into the heads of figures who have no voice in the narrative, e.g. Japanese prisoners of war. Also, many incidents where Americans suffered setbacks are omitted, glossed over or mentioned in passing. If you’re looking for revisionist history you’re not going to find it here. This may turn off some viewers, but one needs to get past that to appreciate the rare glimpses into the nitty-gritty on-the-ground details of close-quarter combat and the grueling battles the soldiers experienced, as well as the extensive Japanese footage. Plus, it offers a valuable overview of the war in the Pacific from its very beginnings to the aftermath. Of course, it’s best to continue one’s study of the subject by reading detailed accounts of each of the actions and events in history books. One particular book I consulted frequently was The War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, by Harry A. Gailey (1995).

Some episodes include lengthy narration by participants in the battles, including an Australian from the New Guinea campaign; Time-Life war correspondent Robert Sherrod, who covered many battles in the Pacific and gives his account of the action at Tarawa in Episode #11; and various American officers, including Admiral Chester Nimitz. Important figures seen in the footage include Nimitz, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, General Douglas MacArthur, General Alexander Vandegrift, Emperor Hirohito, and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Admiral Nimitz (on the left):

Admiral Halsey (holding cup):

General MacArthur (center):

Emperor Hirohito:

Prime Minister Tojo:

MacArthur’s address to the assembled parties on board the U.S.S. Missouri for the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945 and his later address to Congress in 1951 on the occasion of his retirement from military duty are both included.

At a certain point, the episodes get somewhat repetitive as American forces land on an island, overcome fierce Japanese resistance, and establish bases. But that was how the war was conducted and one needs to see it in sequence to get a full understanding of the nature of the war and the slow, tedious progress by which the allies gained ground to get closer and closer to striking distance of Japan.

The best episodes for me are the ones that are most different from the others, including #3, “The Rise of the Japanese Empire,” which focuses on Japan’s encroachment into China and other Asian countries in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor; #16: “The War In The China/Burma/India Theatre,” which takes us away from the Pacific to other crucial Asian battlefronts and gives us glimpses of General Joseph Stillwell, the American commander in that region; and the later episodes covering the final phases of the war: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the air war on Japan.

L-R: Lord Mountbatten, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, General Joseph Stillwell

Still, my absolute favorite episode is #22: “The Surrender and Occupation of Japan.” Here we get footage of American officers and troops arriving in Japan after the Emperor’s announcement of surrender to begin the Occupation. According to Gailey’s The War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, “There was considerable apprehension in both MacArthur’s and Nimitz’s headquarters that the overwhelming number of Japanese soldiers might be maneuvered by diehard officers to oppose the Allied occupation. This did not occur; the emperor’s word was obeyed and there were no incidents.” As a result, we see Japanese officers humbly greeting their American counterparts and turning over military facilities to them just days after the Emperor’s announcement on August 15. It’s quite a sight, considering how adamantly the Japanese soldiers refused surrender and fought to the bitter end in each of the preceding episodes. (However, consulting Toland’s book, The Rising Sun, we find a number of post-surrender incidents of rebellion and resistance, often resulting in Japanese officers and soldiers committing suicide and, in one horrific case, the execution of captured American B-29 bomber pilots.)

MacArthur steps foot in Japan for the first time:

With the Occupation, American movies returned to Japanese Theaters:

Japanese manga artist and anime creator Leiji Matsumoto (Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock) was seven years old when the war ended and he has mentioned in interviews how he and his friends who liked to draw clamored for American comic books given to them by the G.I.s occupying Japan. In this episode, there is indeed a shot of a soldier reading a comic book to a boy.

One of the big takeaways from this series for me is the abundant footage of Japanese surrendering to American troops, usually at the very end of a battle and after the overwhelming majority of their comrades have been killed. These men were usually starving and emaciated, having lived for weeks off whatever edible plants they could find, if any, after their food supplies had run out.

What strikes me in some shots is how relieved the prisoners look, happy that the Americans didn’t kill them and pleased to finally eat and get cigarettes.

Even more astounding is the immediate turnaround by some prisoners to help the Americans locate other Japanese positions and give them any information they might have. They’re already disgraced in the eyes of their emperor, so what  have they got to lose? The Americans are their new masters now. We see several shots of them going over maps with their captors.

In the Bougainville episode, the narrator asserts that one prisoner surrendered because, in his words, according to the interpreter, “I got tired of Japanese army life.”

In the Okinawa episode, the very last group of holdouts finally surrender and the narrator tells us it’s because they feel they are no longer beholden to the Emperor. (How was this determined?)

One big problem I had with the Okinawa episode is the omission of the natives of Okinawa, no mention of them and no shots of them, during the long, arduous battle for control of the island with dug-in Japanese troops. Only at the very end are Okinawan civilians finally seen coming out of caves and hiding places, but there is no mention of the 100,000 or so civilians who died in the battle.

I was curious about the Japanese who surrendered. The Japanese military had instilled in them a “no surrender” mindset, in which you died an “honorable death” for the benefit of the Emperor, but there had to be numerous soldiers who didn’t buy into that and actually wanted to live. My guess is that those who were entrenched in caves and bunkers were afraid to tell others they wanted to surrender because they might have been killed to prevent them from doing so. They feared ostracism and group pressure so much that they just accepted their fate. Or maybe they were simply too weak from hunger and disease (chiefly malaria) to take action on their own.

I decided to check a book I have of interviews with Japanese who participated in the war or war effort, Japan at War: An Oral History (1992), by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook. I found interviews with Japanese who surrendered, including one with a navy lieutenant, Kiyofumi Kojima, who was stranded on Luzon in the Philippines as the American army was closing in and put in charge of a group of stragglers. Here’s an excerpt from his account:

Occasionally I mentioned the word “surrender,” but surrendering was absolutely unacceptable, though everyone instinctively grasped their real situation. There was no way to survive in these conditions. If I’d explain carefully that there was no way out other than surrender, they would explode with anger. Unthinkable! We must fight to the last second! I withdrew my talk about surrendering. Still too early, I thought.

Many days passed. Now, we had no salt and nothing to eat. We had to eat snails. So I mentioned surrendering again. This time, they said, “Take us in, Commander.” There were now just seven of them left–four navy men, two army men, and one military civilian from Taiwan. I recall at that moment looking up into the blue sky and thinking, “I will have no nation from now on. I will be alone.” But I thought, too, “Finally, my fight is over.” I don’t think I was fighting for the Emperor in the first place. If you’d asked me why I was fighting, I guess I would have said, “For my parents, for my younger brothers.

Careful to avoid Filipino soldiers who would have killed them on the spot, six of the eight found American sentries and turned themselves in. (The two army men stayed behind to kill themselves with a grenade.) Lieutenant Kojima spoke some English and got on well with the officers who questioned him, including a nisei (second generation Japanese-American) soldier, so he was sent to Hawaii to work with nisei soldiers to craft printed messages in Japanese urging the country’s surrender to be dropped by planes on Japanese cities, a task he had no problem accepting.

Even though the armed forces were racially segregated during the war, there are plenty of shots of black soldiers, particularly in the later episodes focusing on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I’d like to know more about those instances where segregation wasn’t enforced. What was the context for black participation in Iwo Jima and Okinawa?

The final four episodes are devoted to the postwar period, with one episode on “Shifting Tides in the Orient,” about independence movements among former colonies and the battle against communism, followed by two episodes devoted to the Korean War, which was still raging when this series was produced, leading to a vague conclusion that seemed to think the war was about to end (it wasn’t).

The Korean War episodes touch on the debacle in late 1950 at the Yalu River, on the Chinese border, in which advancing UN troops were completely unprepared for the attack of 100,000 Chinese troops across the border and were forced back. The narration doesn’t mention what a colossal failure of intelligence this was, caused chiefly because MacArthur trusted his own staff more than he trusted the CIA and other entities who got wind of the massive Chinese buildup but couldn’t convince MacArthur.

The episode does cover President Truman’s firing of MacArthur and shows us the unforgettable footage of thousands of Japanese waving American and Japanese flags and lining the route by which MacArthur traveled on his departure from Japan in 1951 after six years of serving as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP).

The final episode, #26: “The Future – Asia and the U.S.,” offers a postwar overview, including an extensive segment on the war in Indochina against communist forces, followed by a roundtable conducted by host Westbrook Van Voorhis with representatives from Japan and the newly independent nations of Indonesia, India and Pakistan issuing prepared remarks.

They each give cautionary statements about U.S. intervention and attempts to use these countries as proxies in their struggle with the Soviet Union, the closest we get to a note dissent in the whole series. As the Pakistani representative puts it, “American propaganda since World War Two has been too broad and not attuned to the special problems of each country.” However, this segment is then followed by an appearance by John Foster Dulles, architect of the Japanese Peace Treaty and soon to be President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, who gets the last, anti-communist word.

I also watched films about the Battle of Midway, including the new Hollywood film, MIDWAY, directed by Roland Emmerich. I’ll save that discussion for a future entry.

Here’s a YouTube link to Crusade in the Pacific #22: The Surrender and Occupation of Japan:


One Response to “World War II on Film: “Crusade in the Pacific” (1951)”

  1. Bill November 26, 2019 at 10:30 PM #

    Yes, I’ve liked all the episodes I’ve seen in this series. Ditto, “Victory at Sea”. Actually, I’ve always been far more emotionally attached to vanguishing the enemy in tales of the Pacific War. Don’t know why, exactly. Perhaps it’s because Imperial Japan attacked us without warning on a Sunday morning. Perhaps it’s because of their total brutality toward vanguished enemies due to their sick-ass Bushido Code. I just can’t get enough of Wade McClusky’s dive at Midway on their wide-open mofo carriers. It’s always thrilling to watch our fly boys turn them into fire balls for the Rising Sun, and flip the tide of war in a day. “Soooo Sorry! Sayonara.” Let me paraphase William Bendix, “Scratch four squinters.”

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