Wednesday, April 28, 2010

THE PACIFIC, Episode 7; The Taking of Peleliu

Welcome to my review and comments about the latest episode of HBO"s THE PACIFIC. To those who may be reading this blog for the first time, my practice is to watch the episode on Sunday on its first airing, and watch it a second time a day or so later before commenting.

The United States Marine action at Peleliu in September and October, 1944 is one of the forgotten battles of World War II. It was originally conceived to protect General Douglas MacArthur's flank while the US Army continued its retaking of the Philippines from the Japanese invaders. The airstrip on Peleliu was supposedly of value in MacArthur's campaign. As it turned out, it was never a factor in those actions; the Marines fought, suffered, and died on Peleliu in a two month long battle for a spec of land in the Pacific that in the end had little strategic value.

Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazello) and most of the other Marines fighting on Peleiu reach their breaking point. The days were either excruciatingly hot or are a torrent of rain. One of the more memorable scenes of Episode Seven was when Captain Haldrane talked to Sledge and the other men during a heavy rain, when he tells Sledge that he can't "dwell on it"- the loss of life and the horror he sees everyday. And then "The Skipper" tells his men to get some sleep, while the rain pounds and soaks them.

Japanese soldiers are driven out of their fortifications by burning them alive with flame throwers. Marines are shot and blown to bits. The Japanese attack the Marines at all hours of the day, and especially at night when they generate near panic and terror. The battle goes on for weeks and months- the Marines are malnourished, exhausted, and near collapse. Some do snap mentally, and not only the young troops; the grizzled World War I veteran Gunny Haney is among those who succumbs to the sight of death and destruction he saw daily.

This episode dealt heavily with the moral ambiguity men in combat feel. After awhile the combatant starts to feel a certain loss of humanity, sometimes wishing for his own death to be quick and relatively painless, while dealing with death he has caused as a fighting man. Sledge starts to go over to a point of darkness; after the death of Captain Haldrane from a sniper's bullet, Eugene was sitting with Snafu, when Sledge decides to take the gold out of a dead Japanese soldier's teeth. Snafu, who has done the same on occasions, stops Sledge, telling him that the dead man has too many germs. In reality Snafu is telling his friend in a subtle way that he, Snafu, has crossed over to a darker place; he doesn't want Sledge to do the same.

In a moment of dark comic relief of sorts a Marine goes into a cave to relieve himself when he is attacked by a sword wielding Japanese; he chases the Marine, pants down, to the area where the rest of the Marines are. The Japanese soldier is shot and killed, but not until the poor young Marine makes a "deposit" in his own pants, to the amusement of the troops watching and laughing.

At the end of the episode the island is captured, and Sledge and the others are evacuated to Pavuvu. At Pavuvu the Marines are given orange juice by female Red Cross workers. Sledge and Snafu stop and get some juice, and the exhausted men pause to look at the beautiful young women pouring the refreshments. They are told to move on by a fresh looking first Marine officer in a clean pressed; the worn out Sledge turns and gives a cold stare to the officer who got the message- leave him alone, he and the others have lived through hell.

Joe Mazello did a subtle and convincing job in his portrayal of Eugene Sledge; the character seemed to age 10 years in the span of two. We first saw Sledge as a teenaged boy at home in Alabama. When we left him, as he was swimming naked in the ocean at the end of the episode, he was now a world weary veteran, forced to grow up hard and fast. He personified the story of tens of thousands who went off to war not far removed from childhood, and who returned as men.

On a small sidebar plot, we saw John Basilone (Jon Seda) on a bond tour in front of an organization that appeared to be Shriners, with actress Virginia Grey in tow. We later see Basilone at a driving range, flanked by dozens of reporters. Basilone started hitting bucket after bucket of golf balls, into the night, to a point where his hands started to blister and bleed. All the time Basilone is shown to have mental flashbacks to Guadalcanal, and to the the death of his buddy Manny Rodriguez.

Basilone's story will continue in Episode Eight, as the United States starts to zero in on the Japanese home islands.

But first they must take the last stepping stone, a small island within range of the Japanese homeland.

Iwo Jima.

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