ST. PETE BEACH — More than anything, Sterling Mace wants to be honest about it all.
For years, he didn't even talk much about his time as an infantryman, hip deep in the worst fighting on the Pacific islands during World War II. The last thing this 86-year-old retiree wanted was to look like an empty glory hound.
But then HBO invited him to New Orleans nearly two weeks ago to see a preview of The Pacific, its $200 million, 10-part miniseries based in part on the exploits of his old Marine unit. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, two showbiz giants known for contemporizing America's last great war, it's a brutal, ambitiously grand look at some of the conflict's bloodiest fighting and its aftermath.
For Mace, it's just another well-meaning movie that exaggerates it all a bit too much.
"They make it sound like it was the end of the world," he said during a recent visit from a reporter, a cacophony of explosions and gunfire erupting from his big-screen television, courtesy of a preview DVD. "There's too much machine gun fire, too many mortars."
Footage of one character, Pfc. Eugene Sledge, crawling on all fours onto a beach under withering enemy fire drew a snort. "You run 60 miles an hour to get off that beach," said Mace, who remembers clambering onto that beach himself at the coral island of Peleliu in 1944. "Takes too long to crawl on your stomach."
And, much as he liked meeting the young actor playing Sledge in New Orleans, Mace remembered the actual man as a much different fellow, back when the two served together in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine regiment, more than 60 years ago.
"He was a quiet guy, who served in the mortar platoon," said Mace, noting that the mortar guys moved as far as 100 yards behind riflemen like him, who faced the brunt of action. "We used to kid them: 'My mother wants to join the service, can she join the mortar men?' "
As well-researched and lovingly crafted as it may be, critics wonder if the miniseries doesn't amp up the sex and violence to distract from a boatload of World War II movie cliches, from the unwilling hero who just wants to fight alongside his buddies to the devoted pal destined for an early death.
Watching the miniseries' re-creation of his unit's run across an airfield at Peleliu, Mace wondered why they showed so many soldiers cut down by enemy fire. "It sounds odd to say, but we only had about six or seven killed, about three wounded," he said. "You walk out of that movie, and already you got combat fatigue."
Spotlight on the men
Sledge eventually wrote two book about his experiences, which Hanks and Spielberg used as source material for The Pacific. The miniseries retells stories of war against the Japanese in the same way that the pair's 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers re-created the war in Europe.
The Pacific focuses on Sledge, a young man from a privileged Southern family who landed in the Marine infantry, along with Pfc. Robert Leckie, a former sportswriter who wrote his own war memoir, Helmet for My Pillow, in 1957. Their stories are interwoven with the life of Sgt. John Basilone, a Medal of Honor winner who wound up fighting in the battle for Iwo Jima.
And while some say filmmakers love World War II because history considers it America's last "good war" — the last conflict offering an unambiguous fight between good and evil — producers of The Pacific sought to show another side.
"It was the intention of all of us to show that even a so-called 'good war' has just catastrophic consequences on the men who have to fight it," said co-executive producer, writer and director Graham Yost, who also worked on Band of Brothers. "There's something about the Pacific theater that really was under told . . . . Unlike Europe, where people go to Paris and vacation in France, it's just not part of our process (to revisit these places)."
In facing Japanese troops, Americans were surprised by an enemy that would send waves of their own troops into machine gun fire to try overwhelming their forces, or would set off grenades when wounded.
Stuck in a war zone filled with rats, torrential rains and land crabs, American troops battled thirst, fatigue and superhuman levels of stress. The project, filmed over 10 months in 2007 and 2008, doesn't skimp on the severed limbs, dead bodies or shocking explosions.
"I don't know how they did it," said Anna Torv, star of Fox's sci-fi drama Fringe, who appears as Basilone's girlfriend, B-movie actor Virginia Grey. "When you realize half of them lied to get into the war and they're only 16 years old . . . it's heartbreaking."
But this series also seems stuck in the archetypes of typical World War II films, with no time spent on black, Hispanic, American Indian or Japanese-American soldiers — though they all served in American units. Instead, we see folksy friends destined to die senseless deaths and selfless soldiers who fear letting their buddies down more than a sniper's bullet.
"The problem with a cliche is not that it isn't true, but that it's no longer interesting, even though it is true," said Yost, who co-wrote one episode and directed another. "I hope there's enough that is surprising and fresh that it balances out . . . the things (we did) that you've seen a lot, because that's how it went down."
Mace recalled the brutality of his tour, which included participating in the assault to capture an airfield on Peleliu (seen in Episodes 5, 6 and 7) and fighting across the island of Okinawa (Episode 9).
Watching a U.S. soldier retrieve a Japanese fighter's gold tooth on screen, Mace recalled his disgust when he saw it happen overseas. "I said to myself 'How much gold can they get?' " he added, before launching a bawdy joke. "During the war, sometimes you didn't get the cream of the crop, you got the cream of the crap."
One brush with death in Peleliu came when Mace gunned down an enemy fighter armed with two hand grenades headed for his position at night. Showing off a tiny Seiko watch in a plastic bag, Mace recounted how he struggled to pry the timepiece off the dead fighter's arm while it still clenched a grenade in a death grip.
A 'U.B.S. Marine'
For Mace, the stories come easily now, laced with an offhand humor he says is crucial to avoiding posttraumatic stress.
Well aware that he would likely be drafted soon, he joined the Marines in 1942 fresh out of high school, leaving three years later when the war ended. Mace would retire to Florida in the mid '80s, after serving as general manager of the Jones Beach Theater for nearly 20 years.
"There's two types of Marines," he tells a visitor heartily, "the U.S. Marine and the B.S. Marine."
So which kind of Marine is he?
"I'd say I'm a U.B.S. Marine," he answers, laughing.
Widowed and living with a talking parrot that occasionally lets loose a curse word or two —"He bit me, that's how he learned them," Mace said, laughing louder — the Marine hopes to attend an Omaha, Neb., event for Pacific theater veterans in May.
"I think of little things that could have happened, but didn't," said Mace, when asked whether the war changed him. "The people back home, all they knew about the war was what they read in the paper. They didn't know the blood and guts of it."
Times researcher Caroyln Edds and staffer Barbara Moch contributed this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.