Ken Burns: He Returns to War





"It's one of the greatest stories of World War II never told." After making critically acclaimed documentaries for more than two decades, Ken Burns at age 54 understands how to draw the attention even of those who think they know all they need to know about a topic. On a recent visit to The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, he was in top form.

"The story of Joseph Medicine Crow," Mr. Burns said, "is something I've wanted to tell for 20 years." The grandson of a scout for Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Mr. Crow fought his way across Europe with the U.S. Army. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, he returned to Lodge Grass, Mont., started to tell tales from the battlefield, and then learned that he'd done what probably no Crow would ever do again: He'd met all four criteria necessary to become a Plains Indian "war chief."

Mr. Burns counts those criteria off on his fingers: touch a living enemy soldier; disarm an enemy; lead a successful war party; and steal an enemy's horse. Mr. Crow had managed the first three, in part, because he had run headlong into a German soldier as he rounded a corner in a small village in Germany. The collision knocked the German's weapon to the ground. Mr. Crow lowered his own weapon and the two fought hand-to-hand. In the end Mr. Crow got the best of the German, grabbing him by the neck and choking him. He was going to kill the German soldier on the spot when the man screamed out "momma." Mr. Crow then let him go.

Joseph Medicine Crow's opportunity to make off with an enemy's horse came along when a contingent of mounted German soldiers was positioned in front of Mr. Crow's unit. In a daring night raid, he slipped behind enemy lines, quickly tied a bridle with a strand of rope, mounted one of the horses and stampeded the others. As he rode off, he sang a traditional Crow song.

Mr. Crow--now in his 90s--is one of the more than four-dozen people who tell their stories in "The War," a new 14 1/2-hour documentary miniseries on World War II; directed and produced by Mr. Burns and Lynn Novick, it will debut on PBS next week. But Mr. Crow nearly missed having his story told in "The War": After the film was nearly done, there were complaints that the documentary didn't include enough Hispanics. More of their stories were put in, and given the opportunity to extend the film, Mr. Burns added Mr. Crow's as well....



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