Review: ‘Apocalypse ’45,’ starring Thomas Vaucher, Harold Wheatley, Ittsei Nakagawa, William Braddock Jr., Maurice Hubert, Nazareth Sinanian and Kenneth Erger

September 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

A “Taps” ceremony in “Apocalypse ’45” (Photo courtesy of Discovery)

“Apocalypse ’45”

Directed by Erik Nelson

Culture Representation: The documentary “Apocalypse ’45” interviews an almost all-white group of American former military men (and one Japanese American man) about their World War II experiences when the United States was at war with Japan.

Culture Clash: Several of the men say that their military training included being taught to hate Japanese people, and the cultural differences between Japanese and American military are pointed out in the documentary.

Culture Audience: “Apocalypse ’45” will appeal primarily to World War II buffs and other people who are interested in war documentaries from an American perspective.

World War II veterans in “Apocalypse ’45” (Photo courtesy of Discovery)

Does the world really need another movie about World War II? The documentary “Apocalypse ’45” sets itself apart from the rest because the movie has previously unreleased and digitally restored (to 4K) color footage that was taken during the war, mostly in combat zones in or near the Pacific Ocean. The footage came from more than 700 reels provided by the National Archives. The documentary also includes “long lost” footage from director John Ford that shows the ruins of the Pacific Fleet and the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack that promoted the war against Japan.

The main reason to see “Apocalypse ’45” is this previously unreleased footage, which is some of the crispest color World War II footage that you might ever see. Most of the footage is from 1944 and 1945, filmed in locations that include the island of Saipan in Japan and the Japanese capital of Tokyo. There are numerous combat scenes on land and sea.

There’s also 1945 footage of an atomic bomb testing site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The aftermath of a bomb test is shown. And so is the bomb-proof, sphere-shaped container with Purple Heart medals which were warehoused at the site. The documentary notes: “This stockpile of Purple Hearts has been enough to supply every subsequent war.”

However, very sensitive viewers should be warned: “Apocalypse ’45” shows the brutalities of war in an unflinching manner that will be disturbing to some people. Although no one is seen being murdered, some of the footage is very graphic and uncensored. In addition to showing a lot of bloody war injuries (including people with missing limbs), the movie has several scenes of dead bodies of American and Japanese people.

It’s mentioned in the movie that many Japanese people committed suicide because they didn’t want to become prisoners of war. Mothers would jump off cliffs with their babies in their arms. (The movie includes footage of dead babies in the water.)

The documentary also shows a Japanese woman by herself, leaping to her death off of a cliff. In another scene, a Japanese girl who’s about 8 or 9 years old is shown with a missing foot. A note held up by someone on the film crew says that the girl’s foot was cut off because she refused to go back with the retreating Japanese.

And later in the movie, there’s March 1946 footage showing the wreckage of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are scenes of some Japanese civilian survivors with severe burns and other injuries. It’s a sobering contrast to the VJ Day celebrations celebrating the U.S. victory over Japan.

Not all of “Apocalypse ’45” is gloom and doom. The movie has a few humorous moments, with footage of the military men relaxing and goofing around in their free time. There’s a scene where several men are sunbathing on a ship. And there’s a poignant scene of a military man eagerly opening a letter and taking in a deep whiff to get the scent of the loved one who sent the letter.

The movie has voiceover commentary from 24 former U.S. military men who fought in World War II. The expected “war is hell” stories are told. There was a lot of fear and a lot of bravery. Some of the veterans who are interviewed express some remorse over the killing that they did in combat, while others say that don’t have any regrets.

“Apocalypse ’45” director Erik Nelson made the artistic decision to keep their interview comments as audio only, so that viewers wouldn’t be distracted if the movie kept cutting back and forth between showing the interviewees and the archival footage. The main down side to this method is that the movie doesn’t identity the people by their names during the voiceover narration.

It isn’t until the end of the film that viewers find out the names of the men who were interviewed and what they look like. They say their names individually and what their military job was during World War II. During the end credits, a World War II-era photo of each man is shown and it fades into a photo of what they looked like at the time of the interviews.

The only exception to this interview format is when the movie opens with an introduction by Hiroshima bombing survivor Ittsei Nakagawa, a Japanese American who was 15 years old and on a family trip when the atomic bomb was set off in Hiroshima, Japan. He isn’t seen again in the movie until near the end. Nakagawa is the only person interviewed in the movie who is of Japanese descent. Everyone else who’s interviewed is someone who fought in the U.S. military during the World War II.

“Apocalypse ’45” begins with footage in Hawaii and other parts of the United States on VJ Day (also known as Victory Over Japan Day), which happened on August 15, 1945. The victorious celebrations over Japan’s surrender and the war being over are almost palpable when watching them on screen. The story then goes back to the deadly bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, which led to the U.S. and Japan declaring war on each other the next day. Most of the movie, which is obviously told from an American perspective, focuses on what happened on the battlegrounds and on the ships during U.S.-Japanese conflicts during World War II.

Interspersed during the footage are titles card of printed text, with each having a basic summary of events that happened during the U.S.-Japanese battles. World War II history buffs won’t learn anything new from what’s on these title cards, but the title cards provide adequate historical context for the visuals that are on screen. The commentary from the World War II veterans provide the emotional context of what was going on with them at the time. Some of them begin to cry, as they relive the war when telling their stories.

According to the movie’s production notes, here are the American World War II veterans who were interviewed for the documentary. The ages listed are the ages they were at the time they were interviewed:

  • Captain Abner Aust, 98, of Frostproof, Florida. He flew P-51 Mustangs for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Aust passed away in 2020.
  • Corporal James Blaine, 95, of Denver, Colorado. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima and he was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in that battle.
  • Sergeant Major George Boutwell, 96, of Pell City, Alabama. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. During the occupation, he was briefly station at Nagasaki where he saw the devastation first-hand.
  • Corporal William Braddock Jr., 98, of Pensacola, Florida. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. He was serving with the Marines before WWII and was a witness to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
  • Fire Controlman Third Class Kenneth Erger, 94, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He served with the U.S. Navy as a fire control operator on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
  • 1st Lieutenant Bill Eversole, 95, of Gainesville, Florida. At the age of 20, Eversole piloted a P-51 Mustang for the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew missions over Iwo Jima and mainland Japan.
  • Sergeant Ivan Hammond, 93, of Santa Fe, Texas. He was a Marine at Iwo Jima with the signal corps.  He witnessed the aftermath of destruction at Nagasaki while serving with the Occupation Forces.
  • Pharmacists First Mate Maurice Hubert, 96, of Spotsylvania, Virginia. He a was corpsman with the United States Navy. He did five landings during World War II, including the first wave at Iwo Jima where he tended the wounded and dying, including war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who died in Hubert’s arms.
  • Private First Class Al Nelson, 94, of Burlington, Iowa. He was a member of a tank crew and fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima.
  • Corporal Monroe Ozment, 94, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima and was wounded by rifle fire during the first day of battle.  Ozment passed away in 2020.
  • Private First Class Johnnie Page Jr., 94, of Decatur, Georgia. He served with the U.S. Army at Okinawa.  Though he arrived after the main battle, booby traps and snipers still presented mortal danger to him and his company.
  • Seaman First Class George Puterbaugh, 95, of Lake Oswego, Oregon. He crewed on the USS San Juan with the United States Navy.  His ship was at Iwo Jima where he witnessed several kamikaze attacks.
  • Lt. Commander Charles Schlag, 97, of West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was a carrier pilot with the United States Navy. He flew multiple missions over Okinawa. Schlag passed away in 2020.
  • Private Ralph C. Simoneau, 95, of Germantown, Wisconsin. He served with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. It was his first and only battle.
  • Sergeant Nazareth Sinanian, 94, of Staten Island, New York. He served with the US Army Air Corps in charge of central fire control on B-29 bomber. He participated in the firebombing of Tokyo.
  • Major Richard Spooner, 93, of Quantico, Virginia. He fought as a private first class with the U.S. Marine Corps at Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. At Saipan he was briefly taken as a prison of war by the Japanese.
  • Private First Class Delbert Treichler, 96, of Germantown, Wisconsin. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. As part of the occupation forces, he later witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki.
  • Private First Class Duane Tunnyhill, 94, of Omaha, Nebraska. He enlisted in the US Marine Corps when he was 17. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained on his 36th day of combat.
  • Seaman First Class George Vouros, 94, of Natick, Massachusetts. He was a ship’s gunner for the U.S. Navy who defended against Kamikazes in the Battle for the Philippines and Iwo Jima. Vouros passed away in 2020.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Vaucher, 101, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. He served as a pilot and wing commander with the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was an aide to General Curtis Lemay. Vaucher led the ceremonial victory flyover at Tokyo during the formal surrender of Japan.
  • Private Harold Wheatley, 93, of Savoy, Illinois. He was a combat soldier who fought with the U.S. Army at Okinawa. He personally witnessed the mass suicides on the island as well as seeing Kamikazes attacking the ships anchored off the island.
  • Corporal Hershal “Woody” Williams, 96, of Ona, West Virginia. He was a U.S. Marine who fought with a flamethrower at Iwo Jima.  Due to his gallantry in action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, and is the last surviving Marine from World War II to hold this honor.
  • Sergeant Joseph Win, 95, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a gunner on a B-29 bomber based on Tinian. Wing flew several missions over Japan, and ironically lives just a mile away from Vaucher.

Many of the men describe being programmed to think of the Japanese, even the civilians, not as people but as “the enemy.” Williams comments on his military training and what he was told about Japanese culture: “They told us that they [the Japanese] were very vicious people, that for them to die was an honor, they were not going to give up. So, it made them very tenacious people because even if they died, they’re going to be rewarded for that. And we were just the opposite. You know, the American people, we Marines would do almost anything to preserve a life.”

The U.S. military men also went into combat with a “kill or be killed” mentality, according to several people interviewed in the documentary. There was fear, but there was also bravery. Nelson comments, “We were thinking about saving our asses. That’s true. Because boy, it scared us. It scared us tremendously.”

Tunnyhill says, “I was dumb. I didn’t think too much about it. When you’re young like that, you’re not going to get killed. How are they going to kill you? I guess that’s what really carried a lot of us through the battle, the thinking that we weren’t going to get killed.”

Simoneau adds, “Thank God that I didn’t have to stare somebody in the face and kill them. I’m a Christian and I believe in the Ten Commandments. This morning I was starting to cry because I did something that’s not me, because my belief in the Ten Commandments says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ And I don’t know of any exception to that. It just says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.'”

Braddock has a different perspective of the killing he did while in combat: “Well, it didn’t bother me to shoot them, because if I didn’t shoot them, they were going to shoot me. And being ‘country,’ so, eye for an eye, you know.”

Voucher has this memory of his World War II superior Commander Curtis LeMay: “Curtis LeMay had no reservations about killing crews. LeMay’s position was, and I’ve heard him say this: ‘Wars don’t end until enough people are killed.’ He said, ‘This thing will end when we kill enough Japanese.’”  

Sinanian comments, “Later on you find out as you get older that the bad guys were not bad, they were just doing what they had to do. Somebody told them that they had to do it. The guys above me, they tell me what I have to do. So, I guess maybe all Japanese were nice people too. They just had to do what the idiots that started the war told them to do.”

Several of the military veterans say in the documentary that the smell of death is something they’ll never forget and seeing the dead bodies will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Hubert, who word as a combat medic, says that things got to so bad that he couldn’t remember what his name was because people kept calling him “Doc.” He adds. “A lot of kids, a lot of casualties. I never like to remember any of those things. I always try to put it behind me. But I managed to survive. The good Lord was on my shoulder.”

Although it’s admirable that “Apocalypse ’45” got the perspectives of several American veterans of World War II, the movie would have set itself apart even more from most other World War II documentaries by having more Japanese perspectives included. Surely, the filmmakers could have found at least one other Hiroshima or Nagasaki civilian survivor besides Nakagawa.

Nakagawa gives a chilling description of what it was like to experience the Hiroshima bombing, which happened on August 6, 1945: “Everything went black. You couldn’t see or hear anything. Nobody knew what it was.” Anyone who had the misfortune of being outside in the immediate vicinity of the bomb either died or was severely injured. And even the people who were inside weren’t safe, since the bomb destroyed buildings.

Boutwell shares this memory of seeing firsthand the atomic bombing Nagasaki, Japan, which happened on August 9, 1945: “There was one thing standing, a big long chimney going up in the air that it must have been 200 feet high.”

Nakagawa comments in the documentary: “I met Frank Oppenheimer, who is the brother of Bob Oppenheimer, the designer for the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. ‘Do you know the story of Genie in the Bottle?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sort of remember that story. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘the genie’s out of the bottle. There is no way that you can get that guy in a bottle.'”

As for the lessons they learned in World War II, some of the veterans say that war will be declared by politicians who send other people to do the dirty work of fighting the war. Wheatley comments, “You can talk to any veteran you want to and they don’t understand at all. Why? ‘Cause most divisiveness going on in our country between politics, it’s crazy.”

Erger adds, “When you think in terms of all that money that we could use for medicines, we have people that have all the diseases that we could accomplish and conquer and they just aren’t doing it. All that money gone to waste and all these guys that cause the war, how can they justify all that? Just let them fight amongst themselves and see how long it would last.”

However, Vouros comments: “If I could do it again, I would, for this country. I would do anything for this country. I love this country. I’m getting teared up.”

“Apocalypse ’45” is undoubtedly a very patriotic American film that gives almost all of the perspective to U.S. military veterans who did combat during World War II. Some viewers might have a problem with not enough perspective being given to Japanese survivors of the war. However, since the documentary’s rare footage was filmed by Americans from the perspective of the U.S. military, it arguably made sense to have most of the documentary interviews be from the American military veterans who served in World War II.

U.S. military troops were still segregated during World War II, with white men making up the vast majority of U.S. military fighters in combat against Japan in the war, which might explain why only white military veterans are interviewed for the documentary. However, it would have been great if the filmmakers made the extra effort to include any people of color who were World War II military veterans and who did combat in Japan.

War is an ugly fact of life that “Apocalypse ’45” underscores with stark footage and frank commentary from people who lived through this brutal experience. Even though the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings helped end World War II, the documentary notes that the decisions to drop the bombs are still being debated today. Because the footage in “Apocalypse ’45” is in well-preserved color (when most World War II footage is in black and white), it makes the documentary seem more like modern-day news footage rather than footage from a black-and-white film era. For Hollywood’s version of World War II, watch “Saving Private Ryan.” For the reality of World War II, watch “Apocalypse ’45.”

Abramorama released “Apocalypse ’45” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 14, 2020. Discovery premiered the movie on September 5, 2020.