History unfiltered: New documentary gives raw look at last months of World War II in the Pacific

Kamikaze’d Carrier
U.S.S Franklin, immediately after direct hit from Japanese dive bomber, March 19th, 1945. (Photo courtesy of Discovery)

The new documentary “Apocalypse ‘45” gives World War II veterans a voice with exploring old war footage.

Directed by Erik Nelson, the film premiered on Aug. 14, which was the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to the Allies, which effectively ended World War II. For this film, Nelson particularly wanted to focus on Japan, which can often be overshadowed by Germany when talking about the war.

“During World War II, there was a policy of ‘Germany first’ — it dictated the war and was extended to a discussion of the war, while others tend to be ignored,” said Nelson. “World War II was an uncompromising, brutal race war, with racism from Americans towards the Japanese and the Japanese towards Americans. It’s important to remind people of all of these things.”

“Apocalypse ‘45” features interviews of two dozen men who served overseas during the war, but not necessarily in the way you might be used to. Footage from that era in history is played over the men’s interviews, allowing their words and the war footage to push the story forward.

“The crutch that most history documentaries rely on I kicked out from under it,” said Nelson, who adapted a similar style in his last film “The Cold Blue.” “I wanted to let the material speak for itself.”

Production started in October 2019, with Nelson and his crew working through February 2020 to get the interviews done. 

“Of the 24 guys we interviewed, four have passed since the interviews,” said Nelson. “This was the last call to talk to them — a chance to unburden themselves on things they haven’t been asked before.”

In early March, Nelson scoured the National Archives to find the best clips to tell these men’s stories and managed to find what he needed before the Archives closed due to the pandemic.

“It’s the real footage, there’s no editorializing here. We’re just laying it out there in their words,” said Nelson. “It’s stuff that combat photographers chose to capture in its purity, and because it’s pure and unvarnished, it’s very intense to watch.”

The clips themselves required minimal alterations, Nelson said, though it did need to be restored and transferred digitally to fit the video format. However, the color of the clips is 100% original.

“That’s the amazing thing, it’s incredibly well preserved,” said Nelson. “In this era of cutting, slashing and burning the post office we’re seeing today, it’s gratifying to see a public institution that is still committed to quality.”

Nelson admits that at times some of the footage might be too intense for some viewers.

“If you couldn’t handle the first 20 minutes of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ this film might not be for you,” said Nelson. “But this is a chance to see history unfiltered, and this is about as unfiltered as you can get.”

Still, Nelson says that the film is an important watch because this could be one of the last times we hear about what those soldiers experienced overseas right from the source, as many of them were.

“This is the last call of the ‘greatest generation’ — and they dispute this, they say they were a different generation,” said Nelson. “They have a long view of America and American history. I want Americans to know what they went through and take away the essence of their experiences.”

“Apocalypse ‘45” is now playing in select theaters and will premiere on the Discovery Channel on Sept. 5.

Survivors from the 5th Marine Division, who were in the first wave of the Iwo Jima invasion. (Photo courtesy of Discovery)