April 22, 2015

1947. We Went Back

We Went Back
Bill Downs in 1947 interviewing a German veteran
In 1947, three teams of CBS foreign correspondents toured postwar Europe and Japan to film a documentary called "We Went Back." As they retraced the steps of American GIs, they showed audiences the progress, or lack thereof, of some of the most war-torn countries two years later. Bill Downs headed one of these teams and was accompanied by the Polish photojournalist David Seymour, also known as Chim.

This review was published in Billboard, August, 1947, p. 12.
We Went Back

Reviewed August 23, 1947

Sustaining Via CBS

August 14, 1947, only.

Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) scored a resounding knockout with its latest documentary effort, We Went Back, presented on the second anniversary of V-J Day. A series of potent body blows, alternating between the heart and the gut, plus some resounding jolts to the brain, added up to an hour of championship caliber.

With Robert Montgomery drawing the many strings together as narrator, the show consisted of a series of wire recordings made in virtually every theater of military operations by three teams of CBS correspondents headed by Bill Downs, James Hurlbut and Bill Costello. Locale of the recording shifted rapidly, jumped from one continent to another and back again at the rate of almost one per minute. Still, despite the swiftness of the pacing, the switch in mood from nostalgia of the past to grimness of the present to fear of the future, the show's basic premise was present throughout. This was the challenge represented by a Russian soldier's inscription on the wall of the bunker where Hitler spent his last hours: "Long live the peace!"

Smiles Not Lacking

It's difficult to say just which mood was most successfully evoked by the program. Comparison between former days and present conditions in long-remembered spots, where G.I.'s lived or fought or sweated out the war, was good for a number of smiles. Interviews with peoples of other lands, their feelings about politics or the American soldier, or how tough it is just to keep alive, were hard-hitting and, save for a few bland inserts, hit the very core. But possibly hardest to top were those sections in which the fears of a new war were voiced in several ways.

The mayor of Bastogne, Belgium was one of the first to ring in this ominous note. Crippled by the Nazis, striving to overcome obstacles to rebuild his shattered city, he nevertheless indicated he believed a new was was imminent because the United States is too soft with the Germans and is permitting them to rebuild. The feeling was heightened in an interview with a German border guard at Aachen—a 20-year-old product of the Hitler Youth. Boldly, the young Nazi spoke into the CBS mike his willingness to join any military or political group which would take up arms to drive the Russian Occupation Army off German soil. As Bill Downs said, episodes make you begin to wonder what's been going on.

Pattern Fills Out

Other fragments made up part of the same pattern. The Japanese, rebuilding Hiroshima, debated what type of materials to use, saying it all depended upon whether the Russians and Americans would use ordinary or atom bombs. The German girl in Berlin recounted how a test flight of U.S. planes over the city recently started the rumor that the war had begun, and how the Germans believed it inevitable. In contrast was the brief recording at Dachau, where 233,000 met death, and where the newly whitewashed walls already were stained red with blood soaked through the bricks.

Everywhere you go, the CBS men reported, people are rebuilding, yet expect war; the pieces just don't fit together. Composing a faithful record of praise showered upon us by former enemies, and our distrust of former allies, the entire show represented a provocative illustration of the thesis voiced at its conclusion: We are not celebrating the second anniversary of peace, for peace will not have come until its security in the future is certain. Like the rest of the show, Harry Salter's musical backgrounds were effective. CBS will have a tough job in the future trying to top this documentary.