During World War Two: The Pacific Theater (Part Two)

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Demarcation monument commemorating the Bataan Death March in Samal, Devao del Norte province, Philippines. (Los Angeles Times)

When we last left off, America had temporarily pulled out of the Philippines as the last holdouts, Bataan and Corregidor fell to the Japanese, putting thousands of American and Filipino troops and civilians in the hands of enemy forces. Those who weren’t murdered were herded into camps, where they faced extremely harsh conditions, and even children were beaten if they didn’t bow just so to their captors.

Naturally, the Japanese made every attempt to put a good face on things, releasing fake publicity photos of seemingly well-cared for prisoners, but everyone knew better. Those who made it out of occupied territories told their stories to a horrified public, which no doubt fueled Americans desire to get back to the Philppines, not to mention Hollywood’s desire to make movies out of what was happening.

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One of the most famous is Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which came out in 1944. The film featured an all-star cast and painstakingly portrayed the story of Ted Lawson and the crew of the Ruptured Duck, which participated in the 1942 Doolittle Raid. The movie not only showed the preparations from start to finish and how everything happened with the utmost secrecy, but the film poignantly emphasizes the youth and hopefulness of the men and their wives, who looked forward to the end of the war and starting families.

However, there was one aspect of the raid that the film didn’t go into because the crew of the Ruptured Duck never experienced it, although the movie does allude to it. Bombardier, on the other hand, is a pretty frank depiction of a bombing raid in Japan, although not the Doolittle Raid, and accurately shows what often happened to captured troops in Japan and occupied territories. Many of these men were either pressed into slave labor or tortured (maybe both), and the ones who weren’t were most often executed.

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Another was the lesser-known 1943 movie, Guadalcanal Diarywhich was based on war correspondent Roger Tregaskis and gives a bird’s eye view of the Guadalcanal campaign, which marked a turning point for the American war effort in the Pacific and well-worth a watch if available.

Bataan and Corregidor were popular subjects, as, again, they were the last parts of the Philippines to fall to the Japanese. One of these was 1943’s Bataan, which starred Robert Taylor, Robert Walker, George Murphy, Thomas Mitchell, and a young Desi Arnaz, but stories of Army nurses was also told. There’s the fictionalized 1943 movie, Cry ‘Havoc’which was based on a play of the same name and of diminuitive success, but which portrayed a group of volunteer nurses whose time is running short. Their foe is unseen but always lurking and getting ever bolder, and nothing these women can do will stem the tide of inevitability.

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The juggernaut of these nurse films is probably 1943’s So Proudly We Hail! which starred Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake, along with George Reeves and Sonny Tufts, and which told the true story of eight Army nurses who were spirited out of Corregidor right before it fell to the Japanese, and it doesn’t mince anything.

The main theme in all of these movies is a sense of impending doom, but also perseverance. These soldiers and nurses held on to the bitter end even when it seemed they had been forgotten by both the United States government and the American people. They might grouse and bicker and almost give up, but in the end, they stand their ground like good Americans because they have hope in a future they may or may not be able to see themselves.

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As George Reeves as John said in a letter read in the last scene of So Proudly We Hail!:

Things will be different. I know that now, because there is good in this war, much as I hate it. This is not just a war of soldiers. You weren’t soldiers in the strict sense, just kids from all walks of life, all kinds of people. There’s something new in this war, something good. You could see it, this new thing, even in their tired, hungry faces as they took courage one from another…It’s the People’s War because the people have taken it over and they’re going to win it, and win it with a purpose, to live like men with dignity and freedom…This is our war and this time it’ll be our peace.

While the film industry was able to portray more of what was really happening in the Pacific, there was still plenty that was left out. Some movies, such as The Gang’s All Here said pretty much nothing specific. We see Casey the big war hero walking through the jungle and looking all sweaty and determined, but that’s about it.

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The American public never knew about the Japanese, both men and women, jumping off of cliffs into the ocean rather than be captured by Allied troops. They never knew of the stink and horror that the men experienced daily, or the real number of casualties in the Pacific Islands and Asia. And the half-truths were no secret among the servicepeople. As Jackie Cooper said in his autobiography, “We knew the public was being fed a lot of pap.”

Now and then, however, the truth did come out. One of the best examples of this is the 1944 short film, With the Marines At Tarawa, which was preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2005. Here it is as presented by the National Archives, and viewer discretion is advised because it does get pretty graphic:

The public was understandably shocked at the sight of dead and wounded Marines, but on some level there was still disconnect, and as the war wound down, a desire to forget, which we’ll get into on another day. When American teenager Sascha Weinzheimer and her family returned to America from the Philippines after having been prisoners of the Japanese in the Santo Tomas internment camp, they found that some things were better left unsaid:

It was some sort of cultural shock coming back, because the body is here but the mind isn’t, and to have to put up with the stupidity of some of the Americans that had been living here–they’d…ask, “Oh, tell us about your experiences,” {and then they would start talking about rationing}, so we just sort of avoided everything, and so when people were talking to us about our experiences we…clammed up. They didn’t want to hear it anyway. (The War, Episode Seven)

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Sascha Weinzheimer and her brother, Buddy. (Pinterest)

Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow because I’ll be posting my tag answers for the Tolkien Blog Party…


Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (DVD), Bataan (DVD), Bombardier (DVD), The Gang’s All Here (DVD and Blu-ray), Cry ‘Havoc,’ (DVD), So Proudly We Hail! (DVD), and Guadalcanal Diary (DVD) are available to own from Amazon.

~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~

If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.


Works Cited

The War. Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Florentine Films, 2007.

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