As military history struggles within the academy, it continues to flourish among journalists — whether Rick Atkinson’s best-selling ongoing trilogy of World War II, Michael Yon’s erudite dispatches from Iraq, or Oliver North’s weekly War Stories on FOX News Channel (the longest running military documentary series in television history).
Some might not connect Lt. Col. North’s War Stories with military history research per se, given its popular audience and television format. But an underappreciated aspect of the series — now beginning its seventh season after some 100 episodes — is its rare documentary film footage, and thousands of interviews with veterans, many of whom have passed on since the show’s inception.
Given the need to interview eyewitness participants, the episodes range chronologically from World War II (nearly half the topics) to the present War on Terror (North has reported from Iraq on eight occasions and twice from Afghanistan), but are not exclusively confined to the American experience. Some have explored the Russian front and the horrific fighting in Eastern Europe as the Wehrmacht collapsed, or involve little known campaigns such as this week’s broadcast on how U.S. Special Operators and their Filipino counterparts track down and eliminate Islamic extremists in the southern Philippines.
As FOX News Channel prepares to begin the series’ seventh season on November 3 (9:00 P.M. EST/ 6:00 P.M. PST), I talked with Ollie North about the nature of the research, film footage, and archives that War Stories has assembled.
Victor Davis Hanson: You’ve interviewed hundreds of veterans from World War II, whether American, Japanese, German, or Russian. How many separate interviews of these first-hand witnesses does War Stories now have on file, and are there plans to archive these accounts for future generations of historians?
Oliver North: From World War II alone, we now have more than 300 eyewitness accounts of veterans from every branch of the U.S. Armed forces, allied and enemy combatants, and civilians engaged in that global conflict. Typically, these videotaped interviews run more than two hours each, and we ask our subjects about everything from their childhoods during the Great Depression, to what they have done since the war. Though only a portion of what each subject has to say appears on our broadcasts and DVDs, their recollections, thoughts, and emotions have been preserved on videotape, transcribed and carefully archived by our War Stories production unit.
We have done the same thing for every conflict since WWII – from the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and now to the War on Terror. When we can, we take the veterans to where they fought — and use historically accurate documentary footage. Our mottos — “We go to where the history is” and “get it right” — have taken us to 16 countries and 48 of the United States to collect what has become an irreplaceable treasure for future historians.
HANSON: Which interviews do you remember were the most moving or graphic?
NORTH: That’s a tough one. My dad and all of my uncles fought in World War II, so our ETO interviews mean a great deal to me. But I’ve also videotaped very powerful conversations with soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen, and Marines I came to know during, and since, my own military service.
Medal of Honor recipient Joe Foss was a long-time, close friend. His account of how he became America’s leading ace is unforgettable — as are the interviews we have done with seventeen other men awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lorelie Prior, the mother of my long-time assistant, was a “Rosie the Riveter” in a defense plant during World War II. Her moving story about meeting her husband — and then seeing him off to war — sums up my parents’ generation.
When we took John Ripley, a highly decorated U.S. Marine, and Frank Boccia, of the 101st Airborne, back to where they had fought in Vietnam, we interviewed a disabled North Vietnamese Army soldier who had once fought against the Marine unit in which I served. He could barely see, so I gave him a pair of my glasses.
For our “Paratroopers” episode, we interviewed Claude Scoggins, a veteran of Market Garden in the 101st Airborne. Shortly after, in Ramadi, Iraq, I unexpectedly met and interviewed his grandson, Phillip, serving with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. Their gripping stories have told me a lot about what makes America great.
HANSON: Given that we are now in our seventh decade since World War II, how do you substantiate or assess the accuracy of the accounts you air, to ensure that they are not mere “stories”?
NORTH: It isn’t easy – as you know from researching, teaching, and writing history. We require multiple sources – other eyewitnesses, veterans who were there, unit histories, official operations reports, historians. That’s getting to be a tougher task now that we are losing WWII veterans at a rate of 1,200 per day. Our producers are devoted to accuracy – and they spend months digging through archives to validate the facts before we put something on the air.
We also have advantages that many other documentary film-makers don’t possess. First, my entire life has been spent in and around the U.S. military, so I don’t need to check a reference guide on modern military terminology. More importantly, our War Stories unit has access to the entire FOX Movietone archive – a magnificent collection of well catalogued work that is particularly useful for World War II and Korea. All of this helps us to “get it right.”
HANSON: You were on the road 250 days last year, filming battlefields and interviewing war survivors all over the world. How did you find these surviving witnesses, and is there still animosity among our former enemies—or does time really heal most wounds and lend a more philosophical context to what they remember?
NORTH: Many of those we interview have been suggested by War Stories fans, people who have read my books, and in some cases, fellow historians. We attend as many military reunions as we can, subscribe to numerous military publications, and stay in touch with the curators of military museums here and overseas. For example, Helen McDonald at the Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX, helped us track down Lieutenant Zenji Abe, one of the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor.
Interviewing former enemies like Abe is a fascinating experience – particularly when veterans who fought against each other are together. To shoot our Huertgen Forest episode, we walked the ground with American and German veterans of the bloody battle as they graphically recounted their horrific experiences trying to kill one another. Afterwards we went to dinner – and they all raised their glasses to the toast of a former Wehrmacht officer: “Thank God that we missed each other.”
HANSON: Your topics range over some 70 years of military history. With over 100 episodes, how do you discover fresh battles or human interest stories after doing D-Day, the Bulge, or Tet — or do hundreds of moving wars, battles, and military aspects of conflict remain to be explored?
NORTH: For reasons too profound for us to explore here, war is part of the human condition. Though we are rapidly losing our eyewitnesses to World War II, every generation alive in America today has engaged in armed conflict – thus there is an endless “supply” of War Stories.
Our purpose isn’t to glorify war — but to document the reality of what warriors endure — no dramatizations, no re-enactments. The crucible of combat brings out the worst and best in mankind. We’re preserving for future generations an accurate record of war’s inevitable brutality — and true stories of courage, perseverance, and compassion forged in the most demanding and dangerous circumstances.
HANSON: Americans are often critical of our present generation of youth, and yet seem to acknowledge the excellence of those currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Compared to American veterans you’ve interview from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, how do our contemporary soldiers compare? Do you think those in the military are representative, or atypical of today’s American youth?
NORTH: The many months we have spent in the field documenting our troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines have convinced me that no nation has ever had a brighter, better educated, trained, equipped and led military than today’s U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen, and Marines. Though I wouldn’t trade anything for those I served with during gunfights in Vietnam, I have no doubt that the volunteers now serving in our armed forces are without precedent in quality and effectiveness. To me, they are the “Best and Brightest” of this generation – and certainly the bravest.
The miles of videotape we have from the present conflict, the harrowing circumstances under which some of it was shot and the astounding gallantry, tenacity, and humanity of our troops are indelibly seared in my memory. Years from now, this footage, carefully preserved by our FOX News War Stories unit, will be the first draft of history for researchers preparing chronicles of this war.
HANSON: Military history, in some sense, is the story of folly and mistake, the side winning who commits the least number of errors. Is there a particular battle that stands out among the survivors you interviewed as one that seemed especially horrific or disastrous?
NORTH: Our upcoming episode “Disaster at Dieppe” (airs November 10th at 9:00 pm EST) springs instantly to mind. The ill-conceived August 1942 raid, against well-prepared German defenses, virtually wiped out an entire Canadian division and two British Commando units. Though Dieppe resulted in the first American ground-combat casualties in the war against Hitler, the American press, preoccupied with fighting on and around Guadalcanal, ignored the debacle.
HANSON: Given the continued primacy of the sit-com or Law-and-Order-type drama in contemporary televisions, how do you account for War Stars continued popularity and ability to draw an audience in a prime-time slot?
NORTH: Nobody in television today does what we do at War Stories. We go to where the action is – or was – and document remarkable accounts of heroism and perseverance that would have been lost forever had we not recorded them for posterity. The eyewitness-participants who fight our country’s battles — more than 2,500 of them thus far — are the stars of the show. This really is “reality television.”
I’m especially pleased that in November, FOX News will begin releasing DVDs of our War Stories episodes. Museums, students, and parents want these because they are an exciting and historically accurate record of significant events. Most importantly, there are millions of American veterans. They and their families deserve to have a permanent record of the battles they fought and the great victories they have won. The dramatic accounts and stunning footage preserved on these DVDs are part of a proud legacy of self-sacrifice, courage, commitment, and devotion to duty they can pass on to future generations.
HANSON: Thank you, Colonel North for speaking about elements of War Stories not often known to the general public.