An old friend, a Vietnam vet, once told me that while he was watching the combat scenes in Apocalypse Now he shoved some high schoolers down off their theater seats and shouted “Take cover! Take cover!” One of the sweetest guys you’d ever meet was susceptible to sporadic flashbacks. The metal plate in his head didn’t help. But it reminds me of a running theme in The Pacific, one that war hero Basilone reiterates to a busboy asking for battle advice before enlisting. “Keep your head down and keep moving,” he says, a fitting statement for Part 5, with its faithful representation of the violent battles on Peleliu Island. In a twist, the war bond starlet Virginia Grey, whom Basilone is sleeping with offers him the same sage advice now that he’s a member of the “famous people’s club”.
Sledge finally gets ordered to the South Pacific and arrives at Pavuvu where he reunites with a hometown buddy and has a brief encounter with Leckie. Much of the entire mini-series is based on books each of them would write after the war. When Leckie discovers that Sledge is a Christian, a “believer” as he calls him, he asks the universal questions about God creating evils like rats and crabs (abundantly bothersome on the island) and enemy soldiers trying to kill him. Sledge gives the universal answers about free will and predestination. Leckie says he has no use for God but asks Sledge to pass on his requests for God to end this thing and get him back home. It’s this constant Yin and Yang, doubt and surety, that gives the series its realism.
My new favorite character is Sgt. Elmo “Gunny” Haney whose eccentricities outside of battle have no effect on his performance as a hard-nosed Marine intent on protecting his men. When a young officer is careless with his pistol on the firing range, Gunny rips his superior a new one.
Though most every episode includes battle scenes, the filmmakers continuously change our viewpoint. When the 1st Division invades Peleliu to take an airfield from the Japanese we can feel the anticipation as the troops are moved into the transports that will deliver them to the beaches. Instruction and encouragement are mixed with vomiting and prayer. We see what Sledge sees as the door opens to a horrific sight: explosions, boats, artillery, combat planes and bodies—lots of dead bodies. Your chance of becoming one may be a coin toss but “keeping your head down and moving” sure helps. Even the background is shot with attention to detail as distant Marines turn into individual mists of red. Then, up close and in our faces, we see how one soldier’s sudden lifelessness becomes an impediment to another who is crawling up the beach.
“Snafu”, the creepy marine (another excellent performance by newcomer Rami Malek) shows the nasty side of war when he cuts out the gold tooth of a dead enemy soldier while he and Sledge and the rest of the regiment are embedded in sand dunes preparing for an offensive against an enemy airfield. That challenge lies ahead.