World War II was a defining experience in my life. Although I was born two years after the war ended, I grew up hearing my father’s stories of combat in the South Pacific. I still remember sitting in the backseat of our 1948 Ford staring at the half-moon scar on the back of my father’s neck where a piece of shrapnel had become embedded. But there were other signs of his wartime experience as well, the way he’d jump out of his skin if a car backfired; his fear of flying, even though he’d spent countless hours as a tail gunner in the back of a B-17; his nightmares, reliving the time his plane was shot down over New Guinea.
I loved hearing his stories about his buddies pictured in a black-and-white photo in front of their plane, Joltin’ Jane. He was the tallest — and most handsome — of the bunch, 6-foot-2, with curly black hair and a Hollywood smile. Once in a while, he’d take out the smooth Purple Heart he kept in a cigar box on his dresser and show me the citation awarded to "Staff Sgt. Rudolph F. Chavez, U.S. Army Air Corps."
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns are now in the midst of controversy over men like my father. Burns’ 14-hour series, "The War," will air in September on PBS stations and promises, at least from the promotion clips I’ve seen, to be as spellbinding as his first major PBS documentary, "The Civil War." Burns hoped to capture not only what happened in Europe and the Pacific during World War II but how the war changed America. By focusing his story on four towns and the soldiers and the families who lived there, Burns humanized the scale of the war. But when word leaked out that none of the soldiers included in the film was Hispanic, several Hispanic advocacy groups cried foul.
After extensive negotiations with Hispanic groups, Burns has now included additional footage, adding three new stories to the series to relate the experience of Hispanic and American Indian soldiers. I suppose it’s a sign of the times we live in: Every group wants its own particular story told. And Burns may have set himself up for the challenge. He was careful to include black, Japanese, Jewish and Italian soldiers, as well as Southern whites and Minnesota farmers in his original lineup, but neglected to include any Mexican Americans, even though Sacramento, Calif., was one of the towns he picked.
Unlike blacks and Japanese, Hispanics served in integrated units in World War II. Fourteen Hispanics earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery during the war, yet many Hispanic soldiers returned home to face continuing discrimination and mistreatment. The refusal of a Three Rivers, Texas, funeral parlor to allow the use of its chapel for the burial of Pvt. Felix Longoria’s remains, which were returned to his family after the war in 1949, launched a major civil rights push by Mexican Americans. Sen. Lyndon Johnson arranged for Pvt. Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and the incident became a focal point in the demand by Mexican Americans for equal rights.
I wonder what my father would think about the controversy over "The War." He died 29 years ago this week and is buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery, like thousands of others who served their country. Looking out over the sea of white crosses, it’s impossible to know what ethnic group the men and women buried there belonged to, and only the occasional Star of David symbolizes any difference in religion.
My father never mentioned any ethnic tension when he talked about the war. I don’t ever remember him referring to anyone’s ancestry. I imagine he viewed the men he served with not as Irish or Italian or Polish, but as fellow Americans. Would he have watched "The War" through an ethnic prism? Somehow I doubt it. I think he would have seen the stories Ken Burns has tried to tell as his own, even if the soldiers and sailors were named Gray, Phillips, Ciarlo, Satow and Leopold.