On D-Day Anniversary, Remembering How TV Depicted World War II

Gritty World War II combat dramas shared the same prime-time space as silly war comedies as TV struggled with how to portray the war in the 1960s, 20 years after it ended.

One of the best-remembered, battle-heavy TV dramas of the era was “Combat!,” whose premiere episode in fall 1962 was titled “A Day In June.”

The title set the stage for the series, which had American GIs fighting Germans across France following the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day. Vic Morrow (above photo, left) played the lead role of Sgt. “Chip” Saunders.

Today is also June 6, 79 years since the great invasion that the victorious participants commemorate every year on this date.



But when “Combat!” premiered on ABC in October 1962, it had been only 17 years since the war ended in August 1945 -- a mere blink of an eye -- and the memory of the war was still fresh for the majority of Americans.

The show was a serious portrayal of men in war. It ran for five seasons (1962-67), the final season in color.

But “Combat!” would come to share the ABC lineup with “McHale’s Navy,” which premiered in the same month.

Considered to be TV’s first World War II service comedy, the decidedly unserious “McHale’s Navy” ran for four of “Combat!’s” five seasons.

The show starred Ernest Borgnine as the exasperated commander of a United States Navy PT boat serving in the South Pacific and later in Italy.

It featured such characters as a bumbling ensign (played by Tim Conway) and a combustible commanding officer (Joe Flynn). 

They adopted the exaggerated, over-loud mannerisms that were common for the laugh-track TV comedies of the era. In this regard, the water-based “McHale’s Navy” was about as deep as “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Indeed, World War II dramas only barely outnumbered the war comedies of the 1960s. Besides “Combat!,” the other American war dramas (some remembered and some not) were “The Gallant Men,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Convoy,” “Blue Light,” “Jericho,” “The Rat Patrol” and “Garrison’s Gorillas.”

After “McHale’s Navy,” the next comedy was a spinoff of the show. It was about a group of USN servicewomen (known as WAVES) who ran the motor pool on one of the South Pacific islands.

This show about women carried the unfortunate title of “Broadside,” a sexist title that would never fly today.

The other World War II service comedies of the 1960s were “Mr. Roberts,” “The Wackiest Ship In The Army” (both based on movies) and “Hogan’s Heroes.”

“Hogan’s Heroes” was either the most daring TV comedy of its day, or the worst-considered TV show of all time.

The show had a group of Allied POWs in a German prison camp conducting espionage missions from their barracks under the nose of a clueless commandant. 

While POW camps -- or Stalags -- were not the same as concentration camps, this depiction of a German prison camp of any kind in a TV sitcom, just 20 years after the war, was offensive to many. “Hogan’s Heroes” ended up running for six seasons anyway -- 1965-71.

While “Gilligan’s Island” was not a service comedy, three of its episodes took TV comedy about the war to a whole ’nother level.

One was the 1965 episode titled “So Sorry, My Island Now,” in which an isolated Japanese sailor (played by the great Vito Scotti), who had no idea that the war had ended 20 years previously, suddenly appeared out of the jungle to bedevil the “Gilligan” castaways.

The second one was “Mine Hero,” in which the castaways discovered a World War II mine in the lagoon. 

And the third one had a gorilla somehow discovering a crate of live World War II grenades in the jungle and then lobbing them indiscriminately into the castaways’ encampment.

In the decades to come, TV continued to take up the subject of World War II, but the comedic treatment of the war largely fell by the wayside.

The epic miniseries “The Winds of War” drew an estimated 140 million viewers on ABC in 1983. Its 1988 sequel, “War and Remembrance,” was lower-rated, but well-remembered.

Years later, HBO scored with its two World War II series “Band of Brothers” (2001) -- which featured the Normandy invasion in Episode Two -- and “The Pacific” (2010). 

In 2007 came Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s gut-wrenching, seven-part documentary of the war, titled simply “The War.”

The series’ centerpiece was Episode Four about D-Day and its aftermath. The episode’s title was “Pride Of Our Nation.”

1 comment about "On D-Day Anniversary, Remembering How TV Depicted World War II".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 8, 2023 at 9:55 a.m.

    TV also produced some very well done documentaries about WW2 in the 1950's, Adam. Two that come immediately to mind were NBC's "Victoy At Sea" and CBS's "Air Power" but there were others. Although it wasn't set in WW2, the first successful military sitcom was "You'll Never Get Rich" starring Phil Slivers ---it was  retitled "The Phil Silvers Show" when it became a Nielsen rating hit for the network---which ran from 1955-59.

    An interesting point about "Combat", which I note in my book---"TV Now And Then", Media Dynamics Inc, 2015----was the show's rating performance. At first  the respoonse was lackluster and it was almost cancelled. However as we became embroiled in the Viet Nam civil war, "Combat's" ratings began to rise significantly. Did this reflect the public's concerns about our involvement in Nam? Were we suddenly thinking  more about what wars were like, which made us more receptive to"Combat"? Perhaps.

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