August 15, 1945 -- St. Alban's Military Hospital, Long Island, New York
A woman reads a passage from "The Iliad" to a recovering Private Robert Leckie, who looks a sight better than his bandaged comrade recuperating in a bed as he sits in a chair, smoking a cigarette and reading the comics page in the newspaper. She looks up from the page and chides Leckie for not listening to her. But he insists he is, and quotes the remainder of the passage back to her. Then he offers to read the comics to his friend instead, offering him the choice of Snookums, The Phantom, and Blondie.
He flirtatiously asks the girl what her favorite is, but before she can answer a man runs into the room and announces that the Japanese have surrendered. The room is suddenly abuzz with joy as the nurses hug each other, repeating out loud that the war is over. They all dash to the elevators, presumably to celebrate in the streets, leaving a room full of broken veterans to sit in quiet shock in their beds. Leckie looks across the room and sees one man weeping as a nurse holds him.
As the cheers filter in from outside, Leckie's face is oddly expressionless.
Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands
The men in Eugene Sledge's outfit shoot off flares and run around excitedly at the news, and he, Burgin and Snafu watch the celebration apart from the rest from a perch atop a rock. Private Shelton, a/k/a/ Snafu, points out a constellation to Burgin, pretending to be official, and declares one to be "Snafu's Pecker." Lieutenant Mac stumbles up to them, drunkenly asks them what they'll do now and offers them the remainder of a bottle of scotch so they can have a little VJ party of their own.
Snafu stares after him. "'What'll we do now,'" he repeats with a faint smile on his face. "What an idiot!"
Burgin takes a hard pull from the bottle. "Well there it is," he says. "My first official act of peacetime." He hands the bottle to Snafu, who takes a drink. Sledge quietly smokes his pipe.
Back in the States a taxi pulls up to a tree-lined street on a perfectly sunny day. Leckie, wearing a neatly pressed uniform, steps out and observes that nothing's changed. The cabbie replies that he thought the exact same thing when he got back. He hands Leckie his bag, and Leckie moves to hand him his fare but the cabbie won't accept it. He tells Leckie that even though he jumped into Normandy, he still got some liberties in London and Paris, while Leckie and the rest of the men in the Pacific Theater got nothing but jungle rot and malaria.
"Welcome home," he says with a serious look on his face, and nods at Leckie respectfully as he steps back into the cab. Leckie doesn't react other than to throw his knapsack over his back and head up to the door of what turns out to be his house.
His mother greets him by admonishing him for not giving them any warning of his return, and leads him to his childhood bedroom, which has been turned into the house storage locker. His father lamely offers to throw most of it away, but his mother insists she doesn't know where they'll put most of it. Leckie offers to clear a corner and make do, but his mother tells him that they'll clean it up. His father tells his mother to give him a moment, and they leave him in the clutter.
Elsewhere, a train is delivering Sledge and Snafu back home. They too are cleaned up and wearing fresh clothes. Snafu sees a pretty girl and introduces himself as Merriell Shelton, and offers to take her to the back of the train so she can show him her caboose. She slaps him, and he smiles as the other men chuckle.
As Burgin sits down with them, they reveal that it's now 1946, six months after VJ Day. Snafu jokes that if they had gotten home earlier, his pickup line would have gotten a more receptive reaction. But six months later, "not as much as a complimentary beer," Burgin gripes.
Sledge observes that somebody had to stay and clean up after the war. Burgin says that he has to get a respectable job, but first he'll have to get his Aussie girlfriend over. He asks "Sledgehammer" what's next for him, but Sledge doesn't have an answer. He doesn't have a job lined up in Mobile -- "no job, no girl, no plans."
Snafu looks at the girl he got fresh with, who returns his look with a cold glare. He grins. "I'm gonna get that girl," he says with a smile. "You watch."
In another part of the country, Lena Basilone is slowly walking up to John's family home. She knocks on the door, and Mrs. Basilone answers. Lena introduces herself, and John's mother nods and says that she recognizes her from the photos John sent. She invites Lena in.
Inside, the house is dark and Mr. Basilone looks at Lena, addressing her in Italian. John's brother George comes downstairs and translates for her: "He says you're beautiful." George goes on to tell her that the last time he saw John in Honolulu, he couldn't stop talking about her.
The Basilones invite her to sit down with them, and she complies. Lena awkwardly compliments their home and when George asks, she tells them that she's waiting for orders. George asks if John' s insurance money is going to help her out, and she reveals that he never signed the papers. George is shocked -- it's $10,000. She holds back tears and insists that she's alright. George said that he saw his grave on Iwo Jima and assures her that he has lots of good Marine around him. Lena thanks him, then pulls a box out of her bag, saying she thought John's parent should have it. She hands over the box. It's John's Medal of Honor. As she fights back tears, Mrs. Basilone comes over to sit next to her and holds her, crying with her.
Sledge and Shelton's train pull up to Burgin's stop, and he's disappointed not to see Florence. Snafu assures them that it's a long way from Australia to Texas, but she'll make it here. As Burgin grabs his gear and move to exit, Snafu stops him.
"Thanks," Snafu says with a smile, "for doing all you did you keep us from getting our fool heads shot off." Burgin simply tells them they're good Marines, and makes his exit. Sledge and Snafu watch as he is greeted by his family with handshakes and hugs. They throw his sack into a waiting truck as the train pulls away.
Back in his hometown, Leckie is talking to the editor at the paper, and the newsroom is abuzz at having a hero in their midst. The women whisper and look at him, but Leckie brushes it off. The editor tells him that they're all proud of "all you soldiers."
"I was a Marine," Leckie says, gently correcting him as he sips his coffee. The editor gets down to business and says he's guessing he wants a job. Leckie informs him that he wants his old job as a sports columnist back, and strong-arms him into moving the present sports writer to the obits section. The editor is flabbergasted by Leckie's confidence and doesn't say no when Leckie gets up to cover a game going on that afternoon, or when he demand a raise.
That night Leckie is writing in his bedroom, in the dark, and looks out the window to see a car pull up to the house across the street. A man wearing military dress gets out, and opens the door for a woman -- Vera, the girl who assured Leckie she would pray for him. He watches this sadly as his mother comes into the room and interrupts. He snaps at her for sneaking up on him and sits back down at his typewriter while she looks out the window to see what her son was staring at.
"You are spying on Vera Keller," she says, half teasing, half chastising him. "She never gave you the time of day. And she's dating an officer, of course. Look at that fancy car." She says she came up to get him to stop banging on the typewriter and turns on the light. She checks his closet and points out that he's never worn his dress blues. He ignores her and pretends to be caught up in his work. She turns to look at him and says meaningfully, "I think you would look nice in them."
Sledge's train pulls up to New Orleans -- Snafu's stop. Sledge is sleeping and after Snafu grabs his sack, he at first considers waking him to say goodbye, but thinks better of it. Snafu turns and gets off the train, quietly blending into the crowd at the station.
Leckie, in his dress blues, crosses the street and knocks on the door to call on Vera Keller. Mrs. Keller greets him coldly and doesn't recognize him, but when he tells her that he's lived across the street from her for the past 20 years, she softens a touch and goes to get Vera. When Vera comes to the door she greets him and tells him, kindly, that he looks well. "Nice uniform," he says awkwardly.
Robert asks, formally, if she would grant him the pleasure of taking her out. Vera politely tells him that she already has a date that night, and as she says it, he pulls up to the curb. "Nice car," Leckie says cockily.
He turns to greet his rival, Charles Dunworthy, at the curb and shakes his hand, a gesture he returns coldly. Leckie notes his Army uniform and asks where he served, Dunworthy casually replies that he's just graduated from West Point. Leckie addresses him as Lieutenant and finishes with, "Congralations. Too bad you missed the whole show."
Leckie then confidently turns around and asks Vera to dinner the next night, which Dunworthy tries to laugh off, saying she's not interested.
Vera observes this closely. "Actually," she says after a beat, "I don't have any plans for tomorrow night."
"O, is that right? Really?" Dunworthy says snobbily. "Obviously I've been wasting a lot of gasoline. Goodnight, Vera." He replaces his cap and stalks off. Vera tells Leckie that she's free that night after all.
Over a candlelit meal, Vera catches Leckie staring and at first he looks away and tells her that he's sorry. Then he recants and tells her he's not. He explains that three years ago, he was lying in the mud in a miserable part of the Pacific, dreaming about a moment like this with her. She blushes and says he must have been through a lot. He looks around the beautiful restaurant, and doesn't reply.
She asks, why her? Why not Rita Hayworth, or Betty Grable? "Because I know you," Leckie replies.
Vera corrects him by saying she doesn't really know her. He nervously rubs his temples and says that he doesn't know how to do this, but she assures him that he's doing fine. He reveals that he wrote her a lot of letters over there, but he never sent them because he didn't think he was going to make it. She asks to read them, but he tells her that he doesn't have them any more because the rain on Cape Gloucester erased every word. So she asks him what the letters were like, and he smiles. "Best stuff I ever wrote."
The train finally pulls into Mobile, and Sledge disembarks, grinning as his fellow soldiers are greeted by their families. Waiting for him is his friend, Sidney Phillips. Sidney is wearing a suit and drives a nice car. Sledge playfully throws his sack at him.
On the way home, Phillips asks Sledge to explain his pipe. Sledge takes it out of his mouth and stares at it, then explains that it calmed him down. Between packing it and cleaning it, he says, he always had something to do. Phillips asks Sledge what he remembers about Mary Houston, and Sledge replies that like everyone else in Mobile, he was in love with her. Phillips tells him that's too bad, because she's marrying him. Sledge jokes that sure she will, after she goes blind. Phillips grins and tells him he's just going to have to deal with it. Sledge can't believe what he's hearing. Phillips asks him to be his best man.
"If you think that I'm going to stand at the altar and lose Mary Houston to the likes of you..."Sledge trails off, then puts his pipe back in his mouth. "Well, hell yes!" They laugh.
Phillips drives Sledge up to his family's mansion, and Sledge goes quiet again. He gets out, and Phillips simply says, "Welcome home, Eugene."
Sledge takes the knocker in his hand, but changes his mind and instead, just walks inside. He looks around the empty house and puts down his sack, then slowly moves toward the kitchen, where he hears the sound of silver being put away. It's his mother, who turns around and immediately walks over to him and takes him in her arms. His father enters the room and watches them for a moment, then goes up to his son and shakes his hand warmly. His mother cries and hugs him again.
The Sledges throw Eugene a fancy welcome home dinner with the entire family. His brother is there with his wife. Later, Sledge watches from a nearby hallway as his brother shows off his war souvenir, a Nazi flag brought home from Prague. His mother and girlfriend ooh and aah over it. As his brother tells the story how he got it, Sledge does not seem impressed.
Later that night, Sledge wakes up his parents with the night terrors. His father sits grimly outside his bedroom door as he kicks and cries out in his sleep.
The next day, Sledge sits outside in a chair, immune to the birds singing and the calm around his. His brother Edward comes over to him and tells him he couldn't sleep peacefully for the longest time. He says his wife doesn't complain, but he knows he keeps waking her up. Edward then slips a bit of booze into his brother's coffee, and his own. Sledge tells Edward that he likes his wife, and Edward assures him that he'll find a girl of his own. He asks Sledge how he did, speaking of that, and Sledge reveals that there were no women for him during his time in the Pacific. Only nurses, and they were off-limits.
Edward can't believe Sledge maintained his virginity all the way through the war, and assures him that those days are numbered, since every woman in Mobile wants to land a fighting man. He assures him that if he goes to an upcoming ball in his dress uniform, all the ladies will be falling at his feet.
"No, Edward, I don't believe I will," Sledge says. His brother is confused -- why wouldn't he want to go to the ball? But Sledge corrects him. "I don't believe I will ever put on a uniform again."
Edward shakes his head. "Not a lick of sense in you." But Sledge can only return his teasing with a hollow expression.
The next day, Sledge put on a suit goes to register for classes at Alabama Polytechnic with the rest of the veterans. The well-meaning co-ed registrar's assistant asks him if he attended any special schools in the Marine Corps. Sledge tells her that he went through boot camp, and specialized in the mortar squad. She runs down the list of skills -- journalism? Accounting? He replies no to them all.
She politely puts the paper down and asks him if the Marines taught him any special skills that he can continue at Alabama Polytechnic. He pauses for a moment, then leans in and whispers, "They taught me how to kill Japs. I got pretty damn good at it." He looks at the shock on her face, then quickly excuses himself at leaves.
At the ball, Sledge is wearing the same suit and standing awkwardly over in the corner and men in tuxuedos and women in fancy masks and ball gowns dancing happily around him. Sidney, wearing his dress blues, is dancing with Mary. When he notices Sledge stepping outside, he excuses himself to be with his friend. Sledge stands outside and smokes his pipe as Phillips brings him a glass of punch.
"How did all this happen?" Sledge said. "I mean, look at us Sid. Standing here at a dance, drinking punch, not a scratch on us. I mean, what the hell are we doing here? Why did I end up back here when all those other fellas didn't?"
Sid tells him that every guy back has felt that, but he has to just pull himself out of bed in the morning and get on with his day. Do that enough times in a row, Sid says, and you forget some things. "For a while, anyway," he adds.
Mary interrupts Sidney and retrieves him for another dance. Sid invites Sledge back in with them, but he declines.
Elsewhere, Leckie and Vera are having dinner with their respective parents at Vera's house and discussing the foolishness of the latest great invention, the television set. Leckie and Vera are softly discussing that the TV will be the next great "thing" while their parents are griping about the expense of it all, and Mr. Leckie is softly complaining that creamed spinach is being served.
Vera's father pipes in that between that and the threats of workers striking, what did America fight those wars for. Leckie shut them all up with, "You know what I fought for?"
They're silent for a moment while Leckie picks up his glass, gazes into Vera's eyes and impishly replies, "Television." Vera is the only one who smiles. Vera's father calls for them to say grace and as everyone else's heads are bowed and they're clasping their hands in prayer, Leckie stares at Vera, then reaches over and takes one of her hands in his. As they stare at each other, Mrs. Leckie eyes the situation warily.
In Mobile, early one morning, Dr. Sledge drives his truck out into the property, holding his double barreled shotgun. Sledge is with him, holding his own shotgun. They go out on a dove hunt, but as they head into the brush, Sledge begins to hyperventilate. He drops his shotgun and starts to cry as he collapses to the ground. Dr. Sledge holds his son as he cries and apologizes, but his father says he never has to tell him he's sorry.
Later, Sledge is sitting under a tree while his mother brings him a drink. She tells him that his brother has been made a supervisor at the local bank, and that he could probably get him a job. She tells Sledge that he needs a plan for the future, and Sledge replies that his plan is to do nothing for a while. She begins to protest, but is interrupted by her husband, who tells her to leave him alone.
"The boy is idle," she says.
"He is not a boy," Dr. Sledge tells her, adding, "you have no idea what men like him have been through." He shoos her away.
Sledge lies back in the grass, and picks a daisy, contemplating it for a while. Later, he walks into an empty meadow alone.
The scene fades out to a photo of the real Eugene Sledge, and we learn that he earned a Ph.D. in Biology, then spent his career teaching at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. From notes he kept throughout the war, he eventually wrote his memoir "With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa," which was published in 1981. Survived by his wife, two sons and three grandchildren, Eugene died in 2001.
The real Robert Leckie married Vera Keller in 1946 and became a correspondent for the Associated Press. He went on to write nearly forty books, including his combat memoir, "Helmet For My Pillow," in 1957. Robert also died in 2001. He is survived by Vera, three children, and six grandchildren.
John Basilone was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross and Purple Heart for his actions in Iwo Jima. Since 1945, stamps have been issued with his likeness, and ships and highways have been christened in his honor. John is remembered every year with a parade in his hometown of Raritan, New Jersey. Lena Basilone learned John had been killed in Iwo Jima on her 32nd birthday. They had only been married for 7 months. She never remarried and died in 1999.
We then learn about what happened to the rest of the Marines featured in the series, among them...
"Runner" Bud Conley returned to Buffalo, NY in November 1944. He married his childhood friend Maryetta and sold cars for over 40 years. He died in 1997.
"Hoosier" Bill Smith survived the wounds he suffered on Peleliu. He returned to his hometown in Loogootee, Indiana, got married and raised four kids. He died in 1985.
"Chuckler" Lew Juergens received an honorable discharge from the Marines two weeks after the war ended. He married and worked as a steamfitter in Chicago. He remained close friends with Bob Leckie, Runner Conley and Hoosier Smith until he died in 1982.
"Snafu" Merriell Shelton stayed in Lousiana, worked in the lumber business, married and had two sons. He did not speak to his fellow Marines for more than 35 years, until he read Sledge's memoir. Sledge served as a pallbearer at Snafu's funeral in 1993.
Bill Leyden went on to become a pro golfer. He kept in touch with the other veterans until his death in 2008.
Hugh Corrigan was promoted to Captain and married in 1994 while stationed in the U.S. He returned to action and was wounded in Okinawa in 1945, then lived with his wife in Ithaca, NY, until his death in 2005.
R.V. Burgin married his Australian sweetheart in Jewett, Texas in 1947. They have four daughters, and still call Texas home.
And Sidney Phillips married Mary, became a doctor, and practiced medicine for 38 years. He and Sledge remained best friends for the rest of Sledge's life. He still lives in a small town outside of Mobile.
From their contemporary photos, we realize that the veterans who have been offering recollections and commentary as forewords to each of the ten episodes are the Tatum, Burgin and Phillips of today.