PUTTING A LIGHT TO THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWNS
Emmy Award-winning producer Arnold Shapiro hopes that his latest documentary, “The Unknown Soldier,” will bring renewed interest in one of this nation’s least understood monuments, the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, where “rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
The program, hosted by Jason Robards, will be shown Monday at 10 p.m. on KCET Channel 28 to commemorate Veterans Day. It recounts the stories of six missing World War II servicemen and explains how the unknown soldier from World War II was selected for the tomb. (1416127776ly is the final resting place for an unidentified serviceman from each of this country’s 20th-Century wars: World Wars I and II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.)
“What’s absolutely intriguing to me is that many people believe that the Tomb of the Unknowns is the grave of their friend or loved one,” Shapiro said. “There are people who go there on an anniversary or a birthday and in their minds that is their person there. Nobody can say it’s not.
“These people have no graveside to visit, no body to claim, no formal burial to attend. They have nothing. That tomb, for some, is it.”
Shapiro, 44, executive producer of “The Unknown Soldier,” said that the idea for the documentary came on the heels of “Return to Iwo Jima,” a program he produced about the visit that Marine Corps veterans made to the Pacific island on the 40th anniversary of the battle there. It aired last Memorial Day.
While filming a sequence for that documentary at Arlington National Cemetery, Shapiro visited the Tomb of the Unknowns and began wondering about who might be buried there. He decided to turn the answers into a film about the memorial.
First, however, he had to obtain the cooperation of the Department of Defense. Initial reaction there consisted of suspicion and concern.
"(Department officials) asked if the documentary would imply that the identity of the Unknown Soldier is known or that someone in the government knows who it is--secret documents and the lot,” Shapiro recalled. “I told them, ‘No one ever did know, no one ever can know and no one ever will know who is in the tomb.’ After that explanation, the department welcomed me with open arms.”
Carol L. Fleisher, the program’s producer, writer and director, and five researchers spent six weeks tracking leads for the missing servicemen whose stories would be told on the program. Eventually they had several dozen possibilities.
Shapiro said the final choices were made by following strict criteria: (1) every branch of the service needed to be represented, (2) geographic representation had to be even, (3) family members and friends had to corroborate the stories, and (4) memorabilia that could be shown (photos, letters and telegrams) was necessary.
The choice of a host was not as difficult.
After checking the service records of several actors who served in World War II, Shapiro said that he was most impressed by Robards’ file. The actor was a radio operator at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, fought in 13 major Pacific sea battles and was awarded the Navy Cross for valor.
In the finished program, Robards narrates the history of the Tomb of the Unknowns along with the stories of Army Sgt. Billy Frazier, Marine Lt. Col. Frank Goettge, Army Air Force Capt. Alfonza Davis, Army Air Corps Sgt. Wallace Kinder, Army Pvt. Taro Tonai and Navy Chief Petty Officer John Burden.
Shapiro hopes the documentary will do for the Tomb of the Unknowns what the miniseries “George Washington” did for Mount Vernon. Patronage at Washington’s Virginia estate reportedly increased dramatically after the CBS miniseries aired. More than just boosting attendance, however, Shapiro hopes his special will engender in visitors a new feeling about the memorial.
Choosing his words carefully, he said, “I hope the documentary will alter the behavior and elevate the level of respect and decorum of the visitors to the tomb, because it’s deserved.”
He said that he did not mean to chide tourists but rather to educate them. He complained that visitors attending the changing of the guard at the tomb often forget or ignore instructions to remain silent and standing, and suggested that the way one acts at a loved one’s grave should govern behavior at the marble memorial.
When Shapiro decided to make “The Unknown Soldier” after “Return to Iwo Jima,” he said, it was the first time that he had repeated himself thematically during his 22-year career. Now he wants to go one step further by completing a military trilogy consisting of these two programs and a yet-to-be-made documentary about Americans who were held prisoners of war during World War II, in Korea and Vietnam.
He said his goal is to provide a realistic view of what prisoners went through, dispelling the notions created by the likes of ‘Hogan’s Heros,” “MASH” and “Rambo.”