If you visit the island of Peleliu in Palau, you’ll find a quiet, tropical oasis. But had you been there over 75 years ago during the Battle of Peleliu, you would have encountered utter chaos. The site of one of the most brutal battles of WWII, many Americans perished in Peleliu, some never to be recovered. That’s until Dr. Pat Scannon came along. Determined to repatriate American MIAs who lost their lives there, he started Project Recover, a grassroots effort to search for the more than 80,000 Americans who went MIA during WWII, with a particular focus on searching the waters and the island of Peleliu for the remains. Every step of the process is handled with the utmost respect for the deceased and their families.
Several years ago Project Recover was the subject of a fascinating 60 Minutes segment. And today we have a full-length documentary for us to better understand and appreciate this patriotic mission.
Directed by Chris Woods, To What Remains chronicles the 2018 recovery mission and takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster. It features veterans, in particular one who fought in the Battle of Peleliu, and details the ripple effects this trauma had on the servicemen. Some survivors visited the island, some preferred to leave it in the distant past, and all were haunted by the deaths of their fellow servicemen who remained MIA. The documentary features stunning imagery of underwater missions. At times the film felt disjointed and I would have liked to have learned more about the planning and execution of the recovery missions. However, it’s an important piece, especially for anyone with an interest in WWII and American military history.
To What Remains recently premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of their Documentaries programming slate. It hits theaters early December. Visit the film’s official website for more information.
“The most traveled, the most colorful, the most efficient, the most highly decorated bomb group of WWII.”
Michael Cudlitz, Band of Brothers
The 93rd Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, executed some of the most daring missions of WWII. Their base camp was in Hardwick, England, a hamlet just north of London and south of Norwich. They completed 396 missions, were instrumental in Operation Torch and have been celebrated for their bravery and ingenuity. Every year the 93rd Bomb Group reunites in the U.S. to reconnect, share memories and keep their history alive. Some years they trek to where it all started and Hardwick embraces the 93rd with open arms. Locals share stories, meet with the surviving members and there is even a small museum that exists in their honor. The reunions also serve as an opportunity for family members to learn more about their loved ones who have since passed on. The annual 93rd reunion is an important example of how we must keep history going and how it is imperative that we preserve these memories so they are never forgotten.
Directed by Michael Sellers and narrated by Band of Brothers star Michael Cudlitz, Return to Hardwick: Home of the 93rd Bomb Group is a loving tribute to one of the most extraordinary strategic bomb units of WWII. The documentary includes interviews with historians and family members but most importantly the surviving 93rd members themselves. We hear from a dozen different pilots, waist gunners, tail gunners and navigators. Their stories make this film an important time capsule.
As a documentary, Return to Hardwick is nothing groundbreaking. In fact it’s fairly rudimentary. One interesting thing it does it superimposes computer imagery over footage of Hardwick to demonstrate how the 93rd would have used the airbase. Military history buffs will love the extensive information about the 93rd’s missions. Casual history buffs like myself might find themselves a bit overwhelmed by this. However, this documentary really checks off all the boxes of what a good film that preserves the history of WWII can really do. I hope it will be shown in museums and that future historians will refer to it as the valuable source of information it is.
Return to Hardwick: Home of the 93rd Bomb Group is available on VOD.
Amos Carlen and Aline Robichaud’s new documentary Shadows of Freedom tells the story of the organized Jewish resistance movement in Algiers during WWII and its involvement in Operation Torch, an Allied invasion of French North Africa in 1940. Over the years more information about Jewish resistance has come to light. But the Algerian story is not one that is often discussed. It’s been swept under the rug because this event, an attack on the Vichy French in an effort to support the Free French, is considered low point in French history. The history of Operation Torch has also been eclipsed by other more celebrated invasions including the one on Normandy. However, Operation Torch, which was part of the Anglo-American alliance, was key to giving Allied forces an advantage in future battles with Nazy Germany.
Shadows of Freedom serves an important role in enlightening and informing its audience about Jewish persecution in Algiers as well as the staged coup that successfully ousted Vichy Admiral François Darlan. The resistance movement was made up of young Jewish French men, motivated by persecution to fight back. The documentary offers archival interview footage of various key players in the movement. Several experts, professors, policy makers and historians, offer key insights into this little known movement. The history of Jews during WWII often focuses on the Holocaust and rightly so. However, it’s important to know, understand and appreciate how Jews fought back against oppression.
Shadows of Freedom is informative and enlightening but doesn’t offer anything beyond the usual documentary fare. Archival footage, talking heads, narration and talking head interviews make up the basic structure. The history of Operation Torch itself is convoluted and hard to follow. If you’re interested in WWII history and want to learn something new, Shadows of Freedom will be worth a watch.
Shadows of Freedom is available on VOD through iTunes, Google Play and other platforms.
Moe Berg was an extraordinary human being. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, he developed prowess as a baseball player, studied at Princeton, received his law degree at Columbia, traveled the world, spoke over 10 languages, was the star of the trivia show Information Please and just happened to be a spy for the U.S. government during WWII.
Aviva Kempner’s documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate paints a portrait of the human phenomenon that was Moe Berg. A catcher with a 15 year career in the Major Leagues, Berg went against his father’s wishes to pursue his baseball dreams. From those early days he already showed potential for a future career as a spy. He used Latin and Sanskrit to create secret codes for his fellow baseball players so they could communicate without informing the other team. Berg was part of a diplomatic mission to Japan, led by Babe Ruth, to train Japanese players and share the mutual love of the sport in an effort bridge the growing divide. Berg, the quintessential polyglot, spoke fluent Japanese and hung around in Japan then traveled to Asia and already started gathering intelligence photographing and filming in areas that were forbidden by the local government. During WWII, he was recruited for the OSS Operational Group. He had proven his chops with his fluency in a variety of languages, including German.
A man of the world, Moe Berg was the epitome of brain and brawn. We learn about his extraordinary life through interviews with family members, experts, historians, filmmakers, athletes, sports columnists and figures as well as archival footage and photographs. This documentary is multi-faceted, much like the man himself. It’s a satisfying combination of baseball and WWII history but works on its own as a biographical documentary about a fascinating subject. The film gets a bit muddled with all of the details during Berg’s time in the OSS but those who are well-versed in military history will find much to enjoy here. Film buffs will appreciate the variety of clips from classic war movies included in the documentary.
The Spy Behind Home Plate is presented by The Ciesla Foundation. It released in theaters Friday and there are screenings nationwide through July and August. Visit the official website for information on screenings.
On February 20th, 1939, over 20,000 Americans gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York City for a Nazi rally. The organizers invited the press to cover the event and as a result we have footage of this little known event in US history. Director Marshall Curry in his 7 minute short documentary A Night at the Garden, offers a glimpse into this historic event. The film captures A Pledge of Allegiance, a speech as well as a protester who storms the stage only to be apprehended quickly by police detail.
Curry’s film offers a glimpse into an event that happened 80 years ago but is still eerily relevant today. This documentary is as timely as ever with the recent resurgence of white supremacy in the US. The pro-American, Anti-Semitic and anti-press rhetoric from 1939 is no different from rhetoric spoken in 2019. A Night at the Garden is just as much a window into the past and as it is a mirror reflecting the present.
A Night at the Garden is nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Visit the official website for more information.