After a delay of several days, its time for my overdue take on this Sunday's episode of HBO's The Pacific. I did get a bit sidetracked by all the other news going on, and I wanted to get a chance to see the the second episode one more time. Though it deals with a period of only a few days of the Battle of Guadalcanal, I wanted to see it again to get a better feel for just what the Marines of the First Division were up against at Guadalcanal. A second viewing helps to grasp the enormity of the task at hand, what they did, and of the heroism of the First.
By October, 1942 the US Marines at Guadalcanal were cut off- the Navy had to move out after being repelled by a Japanese attack. They were alone, short of food and ammunition, suffering from the brutal tropical heat and humidity, insects, malaria and digestive tract infections- and were being harassed by Japanese attacks around the clock. After Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and his fellow Marines survive a Japanese assault, John Basilone (Jon Seda) and his men are sent by LT.Col.Chesty Puller to defend the perimeter around Henderson Field to keep it from falling back into Japanese hands. They are also ordered, if they are defeated, to go into the jungle and continue to fight as guerrillas, if need be.
On the night of October 24-25, 1942. Basilone and his men of C Company were vastly outnumbered, yet held their positions and repelled the Japanese attack. Basilone manned machine guns in the attacks, then repaired jammed guns, and went back through the jungle to get more ammo. He killed several Japanese in hand to hand combat and with his side arm, and returned to his men. One of his hands was badly burned when he touched the hot barrel of the Machine gun, but he fought on.
Below, his his citation, from the Arlington National Cemetery Website.
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action against enemy Japanese forces, above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division in the Lunga Area. Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on 24 and 25 October 1942. While the enemy was hammering at the Marines' defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of 2 sections of heavy machineguns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault. In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone's sections, with its guncrews, was put out of action, leaving only 2 men able to carry on. Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived. A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment. His great personal valor and courageous initiative were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
One source claims that Basilone killed 38 Japanese in that battle, another says the number was close to 100. While watching this sequence I noticed the battle, which lasted all night, was condensed into roughly eight minutes. Still, the portrayal of Basilone's action was accurate given the constraints of time. The next morning Basilone is told by Puller that he would be putting Basilone in for a medal. Basilone goes looking for his friend Manny Rodriguez, who stayed behind as a runner for Puller. Manny's body is found, laying dead in the jungle by Basilone.
Meanwhile back in Alabama, young Eugene Sledge( Joe Mazello) is told by his physician father that he no longer has a heart murmur. Gene tells his father that he will be enlisting, though his father has concerns about what war will do to his son.
By January 1943 the Japanese evacuate Guadalcanal, and some of the Marines are transported off of the island. The episode ends with Leckie and his friends finding out while drinking coffee in the galley of the transport that the Marines of the First Division at Guadalcanal were considered heroes back in the United States.
This morning while reading the print edition of The Star-Ledger I checked out letters to TV critic Alan Sepinwall, and one talked about the scope of The Pacific, and how it neglected the role the Army played in the theater. And it is a valid criticism- the series won't deal with the war in New Guinea or the Philippines, or in China, Burma, or many of the other fronts. Nor will it talk about the role of the Army Air Corps, and the Naval aviators or naval battles- the scope of the Pacific war was just too enormous and cost prohibitive to reproduce in a limited TV series. Much like Band of Brothers concentrated on one group in a series of battles in the European war, it was not the whole story of victory in Europe. "Brothers" didn't deal with the campaigns in North Africa or Italy, and of course, the first turning point in Europe was the German defeat in the Eastern Front by the Soviets.
And The Pacific does limit its story to the three main characters, Basilone, Leckie, and Sledge, and the war waged by Marines island hopping in tiny specs in the ocean, all the way to the Japanese home islands. What this series does is open the door to people who were too young to feel the direct impact of the war, and gives them a start in a search for the history of the war in the Pacific, in all its vast scope, tragedy, and triumph. For a more comprehensive view of World War II, I suggest Ken Burns' The War, shown on PBS several years ago and available on DVD.
Episode Three is coming up Sunday night, with Basilone getting the Congressional Medal of Honor and national celebrity status.