It wouldn’t be unusual, and even a little understandable, for viewers of The Pacific to change channels during the HBO series’ graphic battle scenes, with their vivid reenactments of Marines being torn apart by enemy fire. Detached limbs, gaping wounds and copious amounts of blood can take a psychological toll. But that’s the point—by taking us as close to the events as possible, short of actually being there, we better understand the emotional impact the battles are having on the men.
It’s September, 1944. Sledge, with what’s left of a unit that is completely out of water in 100° heat, makes a desperate, exposed charge across the Peleliu airfield against heavy Japanese fire. At one point the combat-seasoned Snafu is blown off his feet from the concussion of an explosion. Sledge, the rookie, remains focused and gets everyone to cover, including the dazed but uninjured Snafu. But when Sledge later openly confesses his fear to the lieutenant we only see a boy—one of many put into extraordinary circumstances.
The next day Snafu is seeing Sledge in a new light and christens him with a nickname: Sledgehammer. These telling scenes receive their strength, their meaning, from the unimaginable horrors witnessed earlier. A simple glance, the setting of a mouth, the passing of a cigarette—subtle actions that, combined with the hell of war, connect in ways that explanations and a soft-porn depiction of combat violence never could.
The running link of madness among soldiers continues as a Marine, whose loud outbursts in the middle of the night threaten to reveal the whereabouts of Sledge’s unit, is finally silenced with a blow to the head, unfortunately killing him. “It’s better him than us,” says Sledghammer, showing a side that is as much terrifying as it is tragic.
Leckie’s unit also crosses the airfield. When Runner is injured Leckie is sent back to get help, but is slammed into a tree by an explosion that kills the medic he’s approaching. Leckie awakes on a departing hospital ship where he is reunited with the injured, but surviving, Runner, with both apparently heading for home.