Posted: 11/15/2009



by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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The WWII in HD 10-hour series airing on the History Channel beginning November 15 is a provocative, educational and entertaining look at the Second World War through the eyes of 12 veterans who for whatever reason, and from whatever walk of life came together to fight that war for the United States.

Over two years, the photos and reels were found and transformed into high definition footage for all to see. The film footage of the Second World War was captured primarily by motion picture cameramen assigned to Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard signal photographic units.
The stories—some narrated by celebrities and six narrated by veterans who are still alive—are of twelve military veterans that include Army sergeant Jack Werner; Army infantryman Rockie Blunt; War correspondent Richard Tregaskis; Army corporal Archie Sweeney; Army medic Jimmie Kanaya; Army captain Charles Scheffel; Tuskegee fighter pilot Shelby Westbrook; Time magazine correspondent Robert Sherrod; Air Force bomber and fighter pilot Bert Stiles; Navy seaman Jack Yusen; Army nurse June Wandrey and Marine corporal Nolen Marbrey.

The stories are of brave individuals, many of whom had no clue of just what they were signing up for when they enlisted in the armed services. Nurse Wandrey tells of the triage, where wounded and dying soldiers held on to every prayer that things would turn out alright. She relays the death, pain and despair experienced by the soldiers and the ever convincing word that they would survive, even when she knew they wouldn’t.

Army sergeant Jack Werner tells of how he changed his name when he left Germany; from Hans Werner. He said that the “greatest generation” is one that knew what was at stake,” but he admitted that most of the soldiers didn’t know what was going on. He spoke of one of his early army buddies, who hailed from Mississippi and was shot in the head while in a foxhole. “He was a part of the greatest generation, because he lost his life,” Werner said of the dead soldier.

There’s footage of the takeover of Japanese-held Attu, which is near the Aleutian Islands; German held territory near northern Tunisia, and how often the young, naïve American soldiers underestimated the scared, dirty enemy soldiers. In one case, a Jewish solider had to take charge of a group of German soldiers and instead of leading them back to a specific spot, he murdered them all right away. His commanding officer couldn’t justify punishing him for his actions, because he said he had lost his parents at the Nazis’ hands in Germany. It seemed it all didn’t make sense but made sense at the same time.

Tuskegee fighter pilot Westbrook is described as having “deep inner strength,” and was smart to have signed up for the nation’s first all-black air corps.

WWII in HD is a great compilation, for which the History Channel is to be commended. Much of the footage—which includes pulse-pounding aerial combat sequences over Europe to heartwarming shots of a GI sharing his canteen with a frightened Japanese child to the truly chilling sight of Adolph Hitler playing with children and tousling their hair—was in private collections or was donated to military museums—but long forgotten.
The ambitious undertaking to bring all this together is a testament to the importance of preserving history and of saluting the soldiers who gave their time and talents; while others sacrificed their lives fighting for what America thought was right.
WWII in HD premieres November 15 at 9 PM/8 Central on the History Channel. Check your local listings.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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