How to Watch "Victory at Sea"

(And other such efforts)

May 2015

I've always loved "Victory at Sea". I make no claim of impartiality or objectivity, I'm a sailor, and damn proud of it. But I'm even worse than that, that most dangerous of zealots, a military person who never got shot at.

Growing up in a Naval Air town in the Fifties, "Victory at Sea" was fresh news. I used to watch it on TV with my father who was also a "never got shot at" veteran, a "civilian in uniform" in his phrase. But he was still proud, and that was his war.

Fast forward to the late Sixties, and I'm sitting in a raggedy classroom at Navy OCS. One of the instructors would take pity on us from time to time and turn off the lights to fire up "Victory at Sea" on a 16 MM projector. Before the opening credits finished, every set of eyes in the room would be closed. Except for two sets. The Chief's and mine.

So you can call me a hopeless romantic, and I probably can't mount much of a defense against that charge. But even I have noticed a few things over the years, as I got older and more cynical. So here are my thoughts on how to watch "Victory at Sea" and other WWII porn.

"Victory at Sea" was produced by the Navy in the years after the war. It was a work of propaganda aimed at combatting the Navy's most evil, implacable and persistent enemy, the United States Air Force. [1] There is a bit of credit given to the Army and its Air Corps, but in general it's obvious who really won the war. Despite the essential truth of this point of view, there are a few "issues" with the series itself.

First of all, the sound is faked. There are a few exceptions, where some high ranking officer or other politician is interviewed, but in general all the sound was added later. It had to be this way, as Forties technology did not really allow portable sound recording. Instead, we get shots of a battleship miles away firing, with the impressive blasts sounding as the smoke bursts out of the barrel. Anybody who's been to a high school track meet knows about the delay from watching and hearing the starter's pistol, but in a thirty minute show, allowing time for commercials, you can't wait the few seconds necessary for accuracy.

If you watch enough episodes, you will see a lot of sailors running to their posts, and hear "Man Your Battle Stations!" spoken in steady and stentorian tones by an obvious New York stage professional. In reality, the word would have been passed by a 19 year old from Chickasaw, Oklahoma, his voice on the verge of cracking from excitement and an incipient sense of terror to which he would never admit.

That would never happen to Leonard Graves, World Champion Narrator, who was chosen for the series. His voice was definitely essential to the war effort. The opening credits, with black and white footage of the roiling sea still give me the shivers. The ocean I saw when I was at sea somehow didn't compare, and I never heard him in the background. Maybe I would have been a better sailor if I had.

The Navy also sprung for the good music. The other services typically used service bands playing traditional service music, but "Victory at Sea" got the star treatment, with original music by Richard Rogers. [2] It's great stuff. I have been known to drive around with the soundtrack playing in my car. OK, I may be a little strange.

This wonderful music was produced by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Just think about that for a few seconds. In 2015, the very concept of an "NBC Symphony Orchestra" is simply beyond comprehension. MCMLII was indeed a long time ago.

In addition to the dubbed in sound effects, a lot of the visuals were misrepresented or faked. There are even a few shots that look an awful lot like studio staged models. Do you really think we had "cockpit cams" operating during actual combat? Film of PBY crews spotting the Japanese fleet? Air to air shots of dive bombers rolling into an actual attack? "Down the muzzle" shots of rounds being loaded into a naval gun?

How about "just happening" to have a camera rolling in a berthing space when an enemy round blows open a sailor's locker and clothing and a pinup float out in a stream of seawater?

A lot of the footage is reenactments. The Navy actually commissioned a Pearl Harbor film that was heavily enhanced by recreated shots and special effects. Other shots are from training and exercises. I can't really complain about this. The folks actually fighting the war had a few other things to worry about.

Even actual no kidding ground combat footage had its problems. The equipment was crude, and getting good shots meant crawling up to where the bad stuff was happening, usually carrying nothing more than a .45 to defend yourself.

If you noticed a real shortage of beachside footage of D-Day, you should know that a bunch of film was shot, then accidentally lost overboard while trying to transfer it to a ship. The famous shot of the poor guys getting hit and going down on the beach was real, and remember that some poor cameraman had to have made that run, fallen into a hole and turned around to get the shot. That was a tough way to make a living.

A few seconds later in the D-Day episode is a bald guy being rescued from the surf. That footage was from a training exercise before the Normandy invasion. Many lives were lost in that trial run, but that never made a big splash in the papers. In fact, it was kept secret for a time.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that widespread cinematic fraud was the normal practice. The problem was the lack of actual footage of what really happened. In a real war, the vast, vast majority of bullets miss. That's just the way the process works. Of those few bullets that hit something important, not many of them create an interesting visual effect. The editors actually don't have a whole lot to work with.

When something of great visual interest is captured on film, it is used whenever possible. There is one particular shallow depth torpedo shot, from slight screen left on to screen center, that I felt I knew on a first name basis.

This torpedo, whom I'll call Fred for no particular reason, was billed in Victory at Sea as a shot from a US sub, a US torpedo bomber, a German, Italian and Japanese submarine and an aerial drop from most of the world's air forces, friend and foe. Bon Voyage, Fred, you got quite a workout!

Muzzle blasts from Naval guns tend to look a lot alike, regardless of caliber or place of national origin. So if you see shots of guns going off, don't think they necessarily correspond to the battle in the current episode.

Explosions tend to come in ground, aerial and nautical varieties, which can represent whatever year, continent and situation is desired. That's OK, I suspect the folks on the receiving end were not all that picky about the origins of their destruction.

I don't mean this as any criticism of the editors, they did what they could with what they had, and I think they did a fine job overall.

As a former Naval person, I really, really don't like watching footage of sailors abandoning ship. Even if it's the bad guys.

The message of the budgetary battles of the Fifties sneaks in from time to time, as in the description of the Army B-17 attacks from Midway against the Japanese: "Bomb after bomb, miss after miss. Not one hit."

In keeping with the actual genre, "Victory at Sea" uses a lot of footage from Japanese and German propaganda films. There are lots of shots of celebrating Japanese soldiers and triumphant U-Boat commanders.

I do appreciate the concentration on the troops, not the generals and admirals. I love the great black & white footage of the ocean. I only saw the sea in full color, but I think the black & white gives a truer story.

As a supply type, I also appreciate how the show emphasizes the importance of logistics. To a large extent, we actually just outspent and out produced the enemy. The amount of weapons and supplies involved was staggering. Appropriately, there is a lot of footage of food. The story of how all those boxes with crescent ration symbols stenciled on the side got to Pacific Islands is an important one, but generally doesn't get covered in more modern shows. I guess there's not enough opportunity for faked loud noises.

On the other hand, "Victory at Sea" is not shy about showing the true cast of the war, the casualties, and they are not romanticized. I don't think it's actually particularly glorious to be dead, regardless of what uniform you're wearing.

Every now and then, there is a slight admission that perhaps the Army, and even their Air Corps fellows did have a bit to do in winning the war. It was the gentlemanly thing to say.

In 2015, there are some things that startle a bit from the footage. Permanent Press had definitely not been invented back then. Also, we no longer begin the treatment of the wounded by giving them a cigarette. Some things have changed. You will see shots of parades, including sailors. There will always be a guy out of step. Yes, sailors can't march. We have Marines for that sort of thing.

Watching the DD's burying their bows into the angry sea. I hope I can be forgiven for flattering myself that I belong to the clan of destroyermen, despite only serving in a peaceful hemisphere where we bitched when the air conditioning broke down.

So "Victory at Sea" was faked, inaccurate, slanted and generally a propaganda exercise.

But I still love it so.

[1] This was a mutual feeling, as in the famous quote attributed to Curtis LeMay, "The Soviets are our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy."
[2] It's actually not quite that simple on the music. You can look it up if you wish.