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A Latino veteran finally shares his battlefield tales

September 21, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Like many men of his time, ex-Marine Bill Lansford kept his World War II stories to himself.

But now because of the widely publicized and still ongoing skirmish between filmmaker Ken Burns and a coalition of Latino groups, millions of television viewers are going to hear them on Sunday when Burns' documentary series "The War" premieres on PBS.

The 85-year-old veteran, who was born and raised in East Los Angeles, the son of a Mexican actress and a Los Angeles cop, is one of two Latinos feverishly filmed and edited into the seven-part World War II documentary. The Playa del Rey resident's last-minute inclusion into the highly touted 14-hour-plus project was part of a compromise reached earlier this year between Burns and Latino groups who were angered that their wartime experience was overlooked in the documentary's original version.

"I'm just not part of that generation that's out there saying, 'Hey, look at me over here! Look what I did!' " said Lansford, who survived years of intense combat in the Pacific theater. "But if it's for a cause, as in this case, to obviate an earlier omission, yeah, I'll talk about things that I have not talked to anyone else about, ever."

Ultimately, Lansford agreed to do the on-camera interview with Burns' co-filmmaker, Lynn Novick, for two reasons: one, to highlight the contributions of Latinos during the war, and two, to draw attention to his long-standing goal of erecting a monument in Los Angeles to the nation's 40 Latino Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

"What people don't understand is that before World War II, Latinos were invisible in Los Angeles; they were almost like foreigners in their own country," added Lansford, whose plans for the Eugene A. Obregon/Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial were approved earlier this year by the Los Angeles City Council. "But World War II was a turning point. Why? Because guys remember the guys they served with. You're not going to disrespect a man that helped save your life."

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An unintended slight

His story, and those of fellow Marine Peter Arias, who now lives in Santa Maria, are tacked on to the end of "The War's" first and sixth episodes. Also, a vignette about a Native American soldier who fought at Iwo Jima was attached to the end of the fifth episode.

Of the 16 million Americans who served In the U.S. military during World War II, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 were Latinos -- although the museum point outs a firm number will never be known since Latinos were categorized as whites.

"I don't believe Ken Burns or Lynn Novick meant to ignore Latinos," said Lansford, a high school dropout who later became a successful television writer and author. "I think as Easterners they were simply unaware of Latino participation. Easterners think about the pilgrims, and we in the West think about the conquistadors -- and never the twain shall meet, you see?"

Throughout the controversy, Burns has maintained that his latest project was never intended as a textbook but rather as a "bottom up" history built primarily upon the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four American towns. Burns, whose landmark 1990 documentary, "The Civil War," is still the most-watched program ever on PBS, asked that judgment be withheld about "The War" and its half-hour of new Latino material until the program has aired.

"I think we've found the right balance, had the right compromise," Burns said in an earlier interview. "That permitted us not to alter our original vision and version of the film and at the same time honor what was legitimate about the concerns of a group of people who, for 500 years, have had their story untold in American history."

Some Latino groups, such as Defend the Honor, a nationwide grass-roots organization that sprang up after early previews of the Burns documentary were shown, remain angry over their community's absence from the original project and are very skeptical about its latest incarnation. While they applaud the half-hour of additional Latino and Native American material, they argue it's hardly enough to counterbalance a distorted impression created by the other 14 1/2 hours of the documentary.

"This has to stop. Burns has done this twice before with his documentaries on jazz and baseball, where he virtually puts us out of history," said Armando Rendon, head of Defend the Honor's campaign in Northern California, who is the nephew of four men who served in World War II. "That's one of the reasons we're still protesting, so it won't happen again."

But Lansford, who has seen the final cut, is generally satisfied given the time constraints the filmmakers were under. "You're never going to win over everybody," he said.

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Bloody memories

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