‘Apocalypse ’45’ Offers New Look at Pacific Theater

World War II documentary can be streamed through local virtual cinema programs.

The 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan came earlier this month. On Facebook, the two tragic dates of August 6 and August 9 were commemorated by many practitioners of the two-wrongs-make-a-right school of history. After all, the Japanese hit us first. And grandpa was overjoyed when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were forced an unconditional surrender — meaning that he and his fellow soldiers wouldn’t have to invade Japan.  

Documentarian Erik Nelson’s impressive Apocalypse ’45 is a sterling restoration of official U.S. Department of War footage, shot during the last year of World War II. It’s as impressive as Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which brought silent film of The Great War up to modern technical standards. Given the limits of the three-lens Arriflex 16mm cameras that recorded this death and desolation, this footage looks remarkable. And some of it hasn’t been seen before. Of particular note is previously unreleased documentary work by John Ford, taking in spring 1942 in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. He lingers over the rusted ships turned turtle in the harbor, as well as the decoration of a row of white crosses with flower leis.   

Narrating this survey of the last few months of WWII are reminiscences by almost two dozen vets, soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines. We’re also introduced to Ittsei Nakagawa, a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb and a resident of El Cerrito.

These veterans are unidentified until the end. Maybe keeping this military chorus anonymous allows them candor; these vets sometimes weep, sometimes chuckle at the horror that swallowed them up. Among the voices is Medal of Honor winner Hershel “Woody” Williams, who brushes aside the idea that he’s a hero, even if, in Iwo Jima, he survived an assault on Japanese pillboxes that killed all those around him. 

The randomness of fate impresses all these men. Good fortune kept them safe, as did the dumb optimism of the young. Intelligence and valor meant nothing compared to luck — the luck that spares you, or deals you what they used to call a “million dollar wound” (the kind of injury that doesn’t ruin your life, but gets you out of the fight). There’s one recollection of a trooper who had a foot blown off, and he was happy about it — it meant he was getting off of Iwo Jima alive.

The landing parties at Iwo Jima are white-faced as clowns from zinc sunscreen; their mugs are the same color as the pale dead bobbing on the water and stacked on the sands. The first sight of Iwo Jima here looks like Mt. Doom in Middle Earth. It’s a huge broken rock in flames, lit up by the shells from the Navy ships around it. Here’s the famous image of the flag planting on Iwo Jima’s heights at Mt. Suribachi, as well as a note that reminds us that the combat went on for weeks after Old Glory went up.

By comparison, Okinawa was peaceful enough on the beach, but was a death trap in the interior. Worst still, maybe, was the house-to-house fighting in Manila that killed tens of thousands of civilians. Apocalypse ’45 has material as everyday as the scene of a Marine rubbing his sore shoulder after firing a bazooka. The soldiers talk about whether death by flamethrower is quick, wondering if it is true that the fireball sucks the air out of the cave and kills the defenders instantly. Maybe not, given the stories of Japanese soldiers on fire, stumbling out to collapse in the dirt. 

Apocalypse ’45 is just an introduction to the monstrosities of the Pacific Theater — further research can be found in bronze star-awarded vet Paul Fusell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War or William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness. Manchester mentions items such as the cerebral malaria that infested these tropical islands, and recalls the atolls that were so swampy that bulldozers and their drivers sank right to the bottom. We get a taste of that muck here, seeing the big lakes of mud on Okinawa stirred around by the heavy equipment.  

The Army Air Force installed gun cameras to record the results of dogfights; thus the spectacular images of pirouetting and burning planes that we’re all used to from years of documentaries. You’ve probably heard the story that George Lucas used footage of Japanese Zeros and American Mustangs fighting in the skies, to show studio execs how his film would look when the model spaceships were done. At the low points of the Star Wars movies, it seems Lucas took the bitter lessons of the war and reduced them to the reveries of a kid playing with a toy P-38. The fights are clearer here, in color, and just as dramatic as ever.

The closest Apocalypse ’45 gets to the wow-fodder of a Star Wars movie is the section about kamikazes. The Japanese pilots didn’t take evasive action on their way to smash into the decks of ships. It makes it easy for a person to sigh with relief when the kamikazes are shot and downed, but 4,500 of U.S. sailors were killed by these suicide commandoes. When the plummeting flying bombs miss the aircraft carriers and hit the ocean, one can’t swallow a sense of elation. It’s the simple, evil math of one person’s death versus hundreds.

Again one hears a mix of feelings, in the reminiscences of the bombers and fighter pilots: one bomber says he was heartsick at the devastation he caused. A fighter pilot says it was an impersonal kind of combat, since you were shooting planes, not people. Yet another comments how good his weapons were. “I liked rockets. They were no trouble at all.”

Fighter planes were supposed to meet and escort B-29 bombers raiding Japan. Sometimes missions were scratched. When that happened, U.S. fighters could fly over Japan and machine gun anything that moved; we see gunner’s-eye images of these search and destroy missions, tearing up trains and factories.

Eventually Apocalypse ’45 gets to the matter of the use of the atomic bombs. Nelson  makes the sobering observation that the quantity of Purple Hearts minted in preparation for “Operation Downfall” — the invasion of Japan — were enough to last the Pentagon through all subsequent 20th century wars. The majority opinion here is that the bombs saved the day. One swears the atomic bombs were the most humane thing to be done to Japan. Another claims the Japanese ought to thank us for not prolonging the war. One vet quotes a Marine proverb: “Golden Gate in ’48, breadline in ’49”: they assumed it would take 3 years to pacify the mainland of Japan.

Curiously, the Army Air Force’s Gen. Curtis LeMay was opposed to dropping the nuclear bombs. LeMay was the model for Dr. Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, and was also the world-ending horror at the center of Stephen King’s 11/22/63. A career-long believer in attrition, LeMay oversaw the deaths of 100,000 in the Tokyo firebomb raids. He said “Wars don’t end until enough people have been killed.”  

If LeMay was right, the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki counted as enough. Apocalypse ’45 has footage of Hiroshima after it was leveled, proceeded with a banner saying “SECURITY CLASSIFICATION HAS BEEN REMOVED.” The ruined city was shot by a native of it, Akira “Harry” Mimura; he was the cameraman on Kurosawa’s first film, and was also a colleague of Gregg Toland’s during Mimura’s years in Hollywood. In color, the brutality of the bomb is revealed anew — suppurating burn scars on a young girl, heat warped metal, a streetcar grinding slowly through the rubble, and the dusty shadows of evaporated people on the sidewalks.

Apocalypse ’45 claims that the decision to use the bombs is “still being debated today.” It’s not much of a debate in this film; nothing here is as astute as Murray Sayle’s 1995 analysis in the New Yorker speculating about the importance of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria to the Japanese unconditional surrender. Apocalypse ’45 has scenes of the Potsdam conference in the summer of 1945 where Stalin agreed to declare war on Japan. What would have happened if the U.S. had waited a few more days for the unthinkable news from Hiroshima to sink in?

Apocalypse ’45 wants us to cherish the peace, while we’re looking at the fighters, relaxing on the decks or having sulfa powder shaken into their wounds. It’s bookended with scenes of August 15,1945, Victory Over Japan Day in Honolulu and Washington D.C.; with the sailors packing the streets, shouting, raving. At first, there’s a truculence to the crowd. Then, after the women show up, the joy seems supreme. The footage, colorized and digitized, shrinks from full screen, and turns black and white. It becomes the far past right in front of us.

Apocalypse ’45 is available to stream through various local theater’s virtual cinema programs. It will premiere on the Discovery network on Sept. 5

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