by Jeff Hohman on December 27, 2011
The four films in the American Hero Series were intended to be part of a 13 part series showing all aspects of combat in WWII. Each of the films was to feature five men who fought together.
When it came to finding a story about the Marine Corp we knew the following: we wanted to do the story of an island battle in the South Pacific that was a tough, but not generally known. This was important because we wanted the story to be fresh and not burdened with the preconceptions a "famous" island battle would have for the audience.
So, in late 1990 we made a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with a Marine historian name Ben Frank. Sitting across the desk from him, we laid out our criteria. He said there is one island whose battle story we should tell - the Battle of Peleliu. We said, "What? We've never heard of Peleliu." Ben, a veteran of Peleliu himself, went on to describe it to our amazement.
When he finished, we asked him who we should contact to find the five men to interview. He thumbed through his Rolodex, found a card, wrote the info down on a 3x5 card and pushed it across the desk to us. On it was written the name Eugene Sledge and a phone number. He told us to call Gene and he would take care of the rest. Gene did and in May 1991 Gene, Jay de l'Eau, R. V. Burgin, Bill Leyden, and Roy Kelly came to Minneapolis to be interviewed.
After we finished the film late 1991 we premiered it at a 1st Marine Division reunion in San Diego. Over a three day period we showed it to ever growing audiences. In a packed, hot, sweaty meeting room in the hotel, as the last screening of the film began, as the first shot in the film came up showing a shot up, bleeding Marine, who for all the world looked dead, a tremulous voice from the front of the room said, "Oh, my God! That's me!" Needless to say, the response was electric. Looking around the hushed room as the film played out, I realized I was in the presence of quiet, unsung heroes. They would never describe themselves as such because they all felt those who made the ultimate sacrifice were the heroes. But knowing what I know now, that survival in combat is as much a function of just plain luck as anything else, it means that facing the fight is the measure of heroism.
Bill Semans, co-producer of the AHS, and I are just starting production on a new film titled No More Gallant a Deed on the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment during the American Civil War. As our research moves forward, as we begin to find the soldiers voices who will tell this remarkable story for us, one realizes again that each soldier in combat faces the same human demons and emotions that all soldiers have faced in wars fought long ago or wars being fought today. The technologies and the theories change, but the battles fought inside the soldier are the same and they are basic and they are transformative.