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Ken Burns’ 2007 series 'The War'

by Jeff Hohman on August 08, 2015

Some PBS stations around the country are re-running Ken Burns’ 2007 series “The War” (check local listings and times). Section 5 of the series, titled “Fubar,” while focusing partly on the Allied march into Germany, spends most of the two hour segment on the Battle of Peleliu, drawing extensively on Gene Sledge’s great book, “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa”. 

The series uses interviews with soldiers, intercut with battle footage and home front reportage, to tell the story of the war. Because Gene died in 2001, the producers, being unable to interview him, had an actor read extensive excerpts from his book. It was very effective.

Our film, “Peleliu 1944 Horror in the Pacific,” which we produced in 1991, uses extensive interview footage of Eugene along with his fellow Company K Marines: R. V. Burgin, Bill Leyden, Jay de l’Eau, and Roy Kelly. Gene was the main character portrayed in the acclaimed HBO series, “The Pacific”. R.V., Bill, and Jay were also characters in the series.

If you want to hear the straight story of what it was like to be a Marine at Peleliu, our film is as good as it gets, coming from the men themselves.

Fury & The 17th Airborne, the Bulge to the Rhine

by Jeff Hohman on December 09, 2014

If you’ve seen the recent movie Fury, starring Brad Pitt, and would like to learn more about the Battle of the Bulge, we recommend you see our film 17th Airborne, the Bulge to the Rhine, the true story of a band of brothers who fought their way across Europe and into Germany.  Hear Jack Fisher, Robert Harrsch, Walter Byrd, Stanley Polniak, and Carl Arend, five ordinary young Americans, describe the hardships they faced as members of the 681st Glider Field Artillery Battalion during the harsh winter of 1944.  From the Battle of the Bulge through Operation Varsity, they fought and suffered and survived.

Concert for Valor, Saluting American Veterans

by Jeff Hohman on November 11, 2014

Recommended viewing:  Tonight’s  Concert for Valor, Saluting American Veterans on HBO at 7PM Eastern Time from the Mall in Washington, D.C.  This terrific first time event is being sponsored by HBO, Starbucks, and Chase and features an all-star cast, including Rihanna and Bruce Springsteen.

Just a reminder that the story of HBO’s series “The Pacific” was built around Eugene Sledge and Company K-3-5 of the 1st Marine Division. Four of the Marines we interviewed for our film appear as characters in their production: Eugene Sledge, R. V. Burgin, Jay de L’Eau, and Bill Leyden. Also, the story of our film “17th Airborne, the Bulge to the Rhine” parallels the story of “The Band of Brothers”, HBO’s other great WWII series. We expect that their announced series, “Masters of the Air”, which will tell the story of the men and crews who flew the B-17, will be just as remarkable.

Recently, at an air show where flights on B-17s were offered, a table of books and films featuring the B-17 were on display and available for purchase. A Congressional Medal of Honor winner, who flew B-17s, walked by the table and looked over the materials for sale. After spending a few minutes there, he asked the person manning the table why they didn’t have our film “Pistol Packin’ Mama” on display and then told them that is was the best film ever made about the B-17, better than “12 O’clock High”, which to my mind is one of the greatest WWII films on any aspect of the war. Humbling praise.


Masters of the Air

by Jeff Hohman on July 18, 2014

Last year HBO announced it was producing, in association with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, a multi-part film centered on the B-17 – the plane, the crews, the targets.  As the basis for their film, they are using the book Masters of the Air, subtitled America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, by Donald L. Miller, published by Simon and Schuster.

I strongly recommend this fine book. In addition to comprehensively covering the history of the Air Force, the technology of the planes, the strategies of air warfare, and the combat missions, both major and minor, that were flown, Professor Miller interweaves tragic, sad, poignant, and comic stories of individual pilots, crew members, grounds crewmen, and their officers to provide a strong human context to the larger historical overview. A clear portrait of WWII England is also painted.

Of all our WWII documentaries, Pistol Packin’ Mama, the Missions of a B-17, has been the most popular.  It has been favorably compared to Twelve O’clock High, a great film, and my favorite WWII film, among many great WWII films. 

Here’s hoping that the HBO/Spielberg/Hanks team does as well for the B-17s and its crews as they did for the infantry on Band of Brothers and the Marines in The Pacific

They deserve it.


Jeff Hohman


Monument's Men

by Jeff Hohman on February 16, 2014

Much is being made these days of the personal stories of the soldiers from whom George Clooney drew inspiration for the characters in his movie “Monument’s Men,” adapted from the book of the same name. In the Saturday February 8th edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the story of Walter Huchthausen, a graduate of the University of Minnesota and an assistant professor there beginning in 1940, was told.

He was one of two members of the Monument’s Men team killed during the war.  He was shot while driving a jeep on the way to save a statue.  Hit by bullets and killed instantly, his body was thrown across the jeep knocking his fellow soldier to the floor, saving his life.  Huchthausen had dreams of building big buildings and, ironically, the newspaper article shows a drawing of his depicting a large monument he drew as part of a competition.  He was awarded the Bronze Star.

I never tire of discovering  the small individual stories, the individual acts, that make up the big picture of the war. 

On one of the networks this past week, they were interviewing an 88 year old gentleman who was part of the art recovery effort.  He was asked what he was proud of with his service.  Paraphrasing, he was proud that where others were intent on destroying, they were intent on saving.  Some of the artwork he saved were pictures drawn by his grandfather.

Shirl John Hoffman

by Jeff Hohman on January 05, 2014

On December 14, Kenwood Productions lost one of our great friends and a terrific storyteller when Shirl John Hoffman passed away at age 94.  Shirl was one of five crew members of the legendary B-17 Betty Boop/Pisol Packin’ Mama of the 390th Bomb Group.  Shirl was the Engineer/Top Turret Gunner.
Back in 1990, Shirl along with Jim Geary (Pilot), Richard Perry (Co-Pilot), Gus Mencow (Navigator), and Clifford Puckett (Ball Turret) came to Minneapolis to film their interviews for our film.  Over three days of wining, dining, and storytelling, we got to know these wonderful men. 
Not all WWII vets enjoyed telling of their experiences.  Many were reticent, most were uncomfortable, and some struggled to remember and relate painful tales of loss and violence.  Shirl enjoyed telling stories.  When in response to one of our questions he would launch into his answer, there would appear a twinkle in his eye indicating he would be taking as much pleasure in the telling as we were going to experience in the hearing.  He really enjoyed telling tales.
I want to thank Sandy, his daughter, for sending some photos of Shirl, the plane, and a picture of the men when they were here.  From left to right, they are Cliff Puckett, Dick Perry, Gus Mencow, Shirl, and Jim Geary.  Shirl was the last of the crew.
Jeff Hohman

Linking families to film

by Jeff Hohman on April 25, 2012

On occasion I get the opportunity to talk with a relative of one of the vets we interviewed for our films, or someone whose relative served with one of our interviewees.  Recently, I spoke with the son of a B-17 crew member.  He was inquiring about a particular piece of film used in our documentary, Pistol Packin’ Mama: the Missions of a B-17.

He had sought out Gus Mencow, the navigator of PPM, who, in his interview, movingly describes the loss of a plane and crew from their group as we see film of a plane filling with smoke, bursting into flame and falling towards the earth.  The son is wondering if the doomed plane in the clip might have been his father’s.  Gus thought it might have been.  We are going to dig back into our film archives, try to locate the piece of film in question, and provide our source of the film to the son so that he can continue his research into his father’s WWII experience.  By the way, the crewman in question safely bailed out, was taken prisoner, and returned home after the war to take up his life and raise a family.

On another note, we're working on a new documentary film project, titled No More Gallant a Deed. Its subject is the remarkable story of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment during the U.S. Civil War.  The 1st Minnesota was the first regiment pledged to the Union when Lincoln called for soldiers in April of 1861.  It can be argued that, but for their actions during a fifteen minute battle late during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, that the Confederates would likely have won at Gettysburg and, thereby, perhaps the war itself. 

During that brief scrap, which was ordered by General Winfield Scott Hancock in an effort to buy five minutes time enabling reinforcements to plug a threatening gap in the Union line, the 1st took, on that sultry July 2nd afternoon in 1863, the single highest percentage of casualties of any unit in a single action in the history of American warfare before or since – 262 men charged down a gentle slope and just 42 walked off the field, the rest were killed or wounded. 

Like the WWII documentaries in our American Hero Series, which use the personal testimony of individuals soldiers framed against a backdrop of visual imagery to explore the experience of combat, No More Gallant a Deed will use the testimony of the men of the 1st, as found in their diaries and wonderful letters, as well as letters from the home front, to create a deeply personal story of the Civil War soldier’s experience. 

The men of the 1st will be our talking heads; they will bear their own witness to their achievements.  We hope that by successfully telling their story, we will, in effect, tell the story of all those who fought on both sides of our most uncivil conflict.  Since, as we discovered by interviewing so many WWII vets, the experience of combat – the fear, the physical discomfort, the bonds between soldiers – is similar for soldiers everywhere, regardless of the uniform they wear, the causes for which they fight, and the technologies they use.

Go to our website, www.firstminnesotafilms.org, to learn more about the project and the history of this storied regiment.  

Also be sure to visit and 'Like' the Facebook pages for both the American Hero Series and for First Minnesota Films.

Why Peleliu?

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.

Welcome to our new site

by Jeff Hohman on January 30, 2011

It's been an exciting couple years for us:

  • In 2009 we re-released the film series and launched AmericanHeroFilm.com
  • 2010, footage for Peleliu 1944: Horror in the Pacific was featured in HBO's The Pacific.
  • Over the past couple of years we sold thousands of DVDs to trade shows and viewers around the world.

And this week we are proud to launch a newly redesigned website with a much better store powered by Shopify and PayPal.

Please let us know if you have any questions or comments. We always look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for stopping by!