Two Great Memorial Day Movies about World War II

Political News

Aboard the USS Missouri at the conclusion of the formal surrender of Japan, September 2, 1945. (Army Signal Corps/National Archives)

One of the best films of last year was a documentary about the end of the war in the Pacific. Unfortunately that movie, Apocalypse ’45, got only a limited theatrical release, but it is finally available to view at home, via the new streaming service Discovery Plus. I mentioned Apocalypse ’45 as my sixth-best film of 2020 and wrote:

Released to mark the 75th anniversary of V-J Day, this documentary implicitly demolishes the fatuous argument, advanced every August, that the U.S. should never have dropped atomic bombs on Japan. The other options — invading mainland Japan or starving it via blockade — would have caused even more suffering for the Japanese, and the U.S. was under no obligation to spend more of our servicemen’s lives while vanquishing an insane and evil death cult. Vivid color footage, some of it never seen before, set against matter-of-fact voice-over narration by veterans of the Pacific War, illustrates the agonizing toll on both sides of the island-hopping campaign across such thunderously defended rocks as Iwo Jima. The film is punctuated with harrowing footage of kamikaze attacks and civilian suicides that illustrate how grotesquely warped was the culture of Imperial Japan.

An excellent companion piece by the same director, Erik Nelson, is The Cold Blue, a documentary about the harrowing lives of bomber pilots in World War II, which is streaming on HBO Max. I wrote in 2018:

Men from B-17 crews speak in Nelson’s film of watching planes flying in such close formation that occasionally two would collide, each of them crashing. Pilots had to remind their ten-man crews not to waste too much time gawping at crashing planes; there was work to do.

Unlike the British, who ordinarily flew at night, American bombers were told to carry out their runs in broad daylight, over heavily defended targets. Their planes were not pressurized or heated. “On a warm day, it would be 28 below. Sometimes it got 60 below,” recalls one veteran. One man’s hands froze to a plexiglass window and his fingers had to be amputated. Frostbite could set in within ten minutes.

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