Seattle veteran brings color to documentary on World War II

The 14-inch metal spool Jay Sullivan holds in his Seattle condo is flat as a thin-crust pizza and precious as a family Bible.

Wrapped around it are 1,600 feet of color film — about an hour — Sullivan shot during his harrowing experiences with a U.S. Army hospital unit in Europe during World War II.

On it, shirtless soldiers race to put up medical tents. Troops slog through the snow at a former French cavalry post being used as a hospital. Doctors remove shrapnel from one patient and wrap another in a cast.

It's remarkable that this footage Sullivan shot as a teenager even exists. It was technically against regulations for soldiers to have cameras, and color movie film was particularly dear. "We had to camouflage it to look like medical supplies," said Sullivan, 78.

Beginning Wednesday, Sullivan's work will play before its first mass audience. Excerpts are included in a four-hour PBS documentary, "The Perilous Fight: America's World War II in Color." The series, co-produced by KCTS, is broken into four one-hour sections; the first two at 9 and 10 p.m. Wednesday, the third and fourth starting at 9 p.m. Feb.19.

Color film, much of it previously unseen, is the heart and soul of the production. It shows the war in a more vibrant — and jarring — way than the grainy, black-and-white World War II images Americans have watched for decades.

Fires burn brighter, wounds are more striking, attacking aircraft more fearsome. The young women of Paris are more vivacious; stacks of bodies at German concentration camps are more haunting.

Film in the production was selected from 500 hours of footage obtained from some 70 different sources, including government archives, museums, historical societies, corporations, veterans and their families.

Arriving in Normandy just weeks after the 1944 D-Day invasion was a "baptism of fire" for Sullivan, then 19. The documentary quotes from a letter he sent home:

"Dear Mom: How I got here in the middle of Hells-a-poppin' I don't know. Rommel's on one side, the sea is on the other. The Western Front isn't much bigger than a baseball diamond, but what a diamond. The best army in the world is here."

Sullivan's assignment to the 50th General Hospital was engineered by his uncle, Col. Hubbard T. Buckner, the hospital's executive officer. It was Buckner's Eastman magazine camera that Sullivan used and Buckner's influence that enabled the filming.

At the time, doctors and nurses for hospital units were drawn together from specific areas stateside, so that by the time they hit combat zones, they were used to working as a team. The 50th included 58 doctors and 105 nurses from Washington state, most from Seattle.

In textbook warfare, Sullivan said, a general hospital might be located as much as 100 miles behind the front, receiving wounded from transfer points. But the Allies, struggling for a foothold in German-held France, didn't have that kind of real estate.

"The Germans flew over every night, strafing the area. We called 'em 'Bed-Check Charlie,' " Sullivan said. The Germans were trying to knock out a key bridge only a quarter-mile away; American antiaircraft guns fired from a field near to the hospital, and metal fragments from their fire sometimes landed on the hospital tents, ripping the fabric.

Wednesday night's second hour, called "Battlefronts," will include footage Sullivan shot of doctors and nurses in training exercises in Colorado. Longer segments he shot of the hospital in action are included in the series' third hour, "Wrath," running next week.

"Jay Sullivan was a godsend to us," said Greg Palmer, producer/writer of the "Wrath" episode.

Palmer, a former KING-TV reporter and entertainment editor with extensive credits in public-television series production, said Sullivan walked into KCTS in response to a newspaper piece about the project.

Sullivan's shots of the hospital treating wounded from the Battle of the Bulge represent the only known color footage of one of the war's key struggles, a vicious and desperate German counteroffensive, Palmer said.

In addition, Sullivan's film of black troops clearing land and laying a foundation for a hospital site near Normandy help document the important story of how African Americans were, as late as 1944, largely relegated to menial and support tasks.

"It's not a history of the war," Palmer said. "It's a history of the American experience in the war," adding that a complete history could never be made relying solely on color film.

He admits some of the shots are disturbing, although mild compared with what was cut. "I think in a country that's about to go to war, it's important to see a war that wasn't so push-button clean."

Film used in the series went through a careful restoration to treat cracks, blotches and other effects of time. It wasn't "colorized," which adds color to black-and-white images, Palmer said. Instead, a process was used to refresh colors already on the film.

The "Wrath" segment takes viewers from D-Day, June 6, 1944, to V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, May 8, 1945. Seattle viewers will recognize another KING-TV veteran, former political editor Bob Simmons, as the voice of legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

"War has become a flat-black depression without highlights — a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit," a weary Pyle wrote in August 1944 in his last column from Europe. The following spring, Pyle was assigned to the Pacific theater and was killed by sniper fire near Okinawa, Japan.

Besides KCTS, producers of the "The Perilous Fight" include international producer and distributor TWI, Britain's Carlton Television and Lark International. Overall producer Martin Smith has made other war documentaries and was exhibition director at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Actor Martin Sheen of NBC's "The West Wing" narrates the documentary, which includes voices from diaries, letters and important political figures.

Sullivan, a retired retail pharmacist who still does occasional work for Public Health — Seattle & King County, lives in a First Hill condominium with Betty, his wife of 31 years.

He said he was selected for the hospital staff because he had typing experience, rare among young men at the time. The photography work came partly because he'd been a camera buff since he was 13, shooting "travelogues" from places he'd visit, and filming little skits he put together with friends.

Was he frightened during his wartime assignment? At night, yes, when sleep was perforated with the sound of artillery and antiaircraft fire.

"But during the day we didn't have any time to think about that. We were all too busy."

Jack Broom: or 206-464-2222.

Viewing hours

"The Perilous Fight: America's World War II in Color," KCTS-TV, 9 p.m. Wednesday and Feb. 19. More information is available at