Recreating an Aerial Duel Over Guadalcanal, Mystery on Board (TV Documentary)

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Earlier installments of the entertaining PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” have looked at assassinations, zeppelin explosions and other historical incidents with “CSI”-style precision to determine why lives were lost. Tonight’s offering tries to determine why one life was spared.

It’s called “Dogfight Over Guadalcanal,” and it features some dandy re-creations of an aerial duel fought in August 1942 during that World War II battle. Two hotshots chased after each other in the sky: Saburo Sakai, a Japanese naval pilot from a squadron sent to try to stop the American offensive, and James Southerland, who was among the Navy pilots dispatched to intercept the Japanese.

Each man was among the most skilled and daring pilots his side had to offer, but “Dogfight” doesn’t merely let the two blast away at each other. The program first gives a succinct assessment of the differences between the two planes involved, the Japanese Zero and the Navy Wildcat, and then weaves that knowledge into the description of the battle, in which Mr. Southerland’s plane was eventually shot down.

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