‘The Pacific’: War Expert Captain Dale Dye Shapes New Recruits

by | March 14, 2010 at 12:15 PM | Interviews, The Pacific

James Badge Dale in The Pacific (HBO)

James Badge Dale in The Pacific (HBO)

It’s become a cultural/historical phenomenon, the collaborations of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on World War II. The Hollywood powerhouses first teamed up for the 1998 Oscar juggernaut ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ They came together again three years later for the HBO saga ‘Band of Brothers,’ which won six Emmy awards. Now, Hanks and Spielberg, joined by Brothers co-executive producer Gary Goetzman, join forces once again in the name of the veterans of the second world war, this time for ‘The Pacific,’ premiering March 14. The HBO epic follows three Marines into the lesser-known Pacific theater, the terrifically heroic John Basilone (John Seda), conflicted writer Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), and sickly but stalwart Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello).

Before the filmmakers could bring the war to life, though, they needed someone to transform their cadre of talented young actors into fighting men. Once again they turned to Capt. Dale Dye, a Vietnam vet who nine years ago shaped a similar crew into a band of brothers. Capt. Dye takes us through the men’s training mission, reflects on his Brothers experience, and gives us a fascinating history lesson in the bargain.

Steven Spielberg, Jon Seda, James Badge Dale, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hanks. (Art Streiber/HBO)

Steven Spielberg, Jon Seda, James Badge Dale, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hanks. (Art Streiber/HBO)

So you were with the actors for basic training.
Yes ma’am, that’s what I do, I train ’em.

And how did they do?
They did marvelously. We were really pressed. We only had 10 days to build these guys. Interestingly, unlike Band of Brothers, which was one unit of paratroopers, these guys represented different skills in three different regiments of the first marine division. So you had guys who had to be mortarmen, you had guys who had to be expert machine gunners, and you had guys who had to be expert riflemen. So the training was difficult from a technical aspect. But the spirit of the warrior is common from the Peloponnesian Wars to today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so that’s where we wanted to go. And it’s always been my belief that you can train anybody to do rote weapon-handling—how to look like handled his weapon proficiently, and so on. That’s not the key to a thing like this. The key to a thing like this is to work from the inside out. I need to get into your heart. I need to reach inside your chest and pull that throbbing heart out and show it to you.

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How do you do that?
You do it by pressing them until they become a blank slate. I mean physically exhausting them. I mean wearing ’em out to the point that all they’re worried about is the next five minutes.

So take me through a day. What do you do to them?
For instance, maybe I’ve had ’em up all night, sitting in holes in the jungle, and about three in the morning my Japanese forces attack them, and they’ve got to fight off that attack. Then, about two hours later, at about 0500, I’ve got ’em up—no breakfast, no nothing—we’re doing a huge series of calisthenics. We’re doing maybe a three-, four-, five-mile run in unison, so that they understand the power of a group, as opposed to the power of an individual. Then we bring ’em back and we work consistently on weapons. The mortarmen go off and learn skills about the mortars. The machine gunners go off and learn skills about the machine guns. The riflemen are on the firing line learning to reload, just as though they did it every day, so there’s never a stop at any time—they just automatically reload and get back into the fight. Then maybe we go to close-quarters battle where I have ’em smash into each other at a full run, so that you can learn to use the other person’s momentum against him. Then, perhaps, we brief a mission or a patrol up into the heavy jungle. Where we were, in far north Queensland, Australia, it’s triple canopy. It’s huge rainforest up there. So you pack up the patrol with all the machine guns and the mortars and everything else, and you move them off. It’s so thick, that you literally have to walk on a compass heading to find out where you’re going. You get ’em up into there, and they’re cutting their way through the bush with machetes and everything. You’re teaching them. They’ve got 40 or 50 lbs. of real weight on their back, plus weapons and ammunition and so forth, and they’re beginning to understand what these guys went through in the Pacific. And then maybe about halfway up the mountain, you have your Japanese forces ambush ’em. Now they’ve got to counter the ambush. The mortarmen have to set up to deliver fire. They’ve got to find a place where they’re not masked for overhead, so they can fire. The machine guns are having to displace forward and fire cover for the infantry that’s coming up on the Japanese hard point. And it continues, and it continues, and it continues.

(HBO)

(HBO)

Then maybe you go down the other side of the mountain and you walk back through the jungle and you come up into the command post. Then maybe I’ll decide to feed ’em. I feed ’em twice a day if they don’t piss me off. Maybe I’ll decide to feed ’em that time, rations and that sort of thing. Now they’re fairly well exhausted, but we open up the schoolhouse and I begin to work on their minds. I begin to teach. I begin to teach them about the psychology of a warrior. I begin to teach them the special jargon that makes marines different from everybody else. I teach them the mindset of people in the 1940s, just coming out of the Depression, and so forth. I teach the history of the division, the history of the war, the state of the world in 1941 or 1942.

I was stunned to discover that they cursed so much.
There’s nothing new about that. It’s just different words. There’s certain things we didn’t say back in those days that they do say now. But for the most part, when you’re pressed and the emotions are really high, and you can’t think of the appropriate things to say, you fall back on whatever seems to work.

One of the things I was confused about: There’s a scene in the miniseries in which the Marines “liberate” equipment and food from the Army. Why was the Army so much better equipped with materiel and rations?
The Marine Corps is a very small outfit, and has always been a very small outfit. We don’t have the money that the Army does, and much of our money comes from the Navy, because remember, the Marine Corps is part of the Dept. of the Navy—some people would say the men’s department, but at any rate, there’s a certain pride in the Marines. We’ve always done a dollar job on a dime budget. We know how to get it done, and we don’t sit back and whine that we need more money, and we don’t sit back and whine that we need more gear. We’re not going to get it; we know we’re not going to get it, so we make do with what we have. That creates a sort of perverse pride. You can look at these guys with all their nice gear and equipment and weapons and everything else, and you’ve got nothing but a bayonet and an old World War I-era rifle. But you get the job done. That’s part of that inherent pride that Marines had, and they still have it today.

(HBO)

(HBO)

So the reason is, we were out on the ragged tail end of the campaigns. You have to remember something about World War II: For the most part, the focus in America was on the war in Europe, for obvious reasons. You had, essentially, Judeo-European guys fighting Judeo-European guys, so we got it. What was at risk was our ancestral homelands, for the most part. Most families, excluding African-Americans, most families were from Europe in some fashion, from Scotland, Ireland, England, so on and so forth. So we saw that as our ancestral homeland, and that got the emphasis. The Pacific was like an afterthought. Okay, well as soon as we get this guy Hitler taken care of, we’ll go over and deal with this business in the Pacific. Well, obviously, after Pearl Harbor, we couldn’t delay it. We had to deal with it. And the people who were specialists at dealing with it, becuase it’s a naval campaign, remember, unlike Europe, which is a land campaign. Power has to be pushed ashore from the sea, because of the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. So what happens is that you get so far out there that all the gear and food and new weapons and new innovations, they don’t reach you. They don’t reach you for a long, long time. So you’re out there just making do, or capturing the bad guys’ stuff, you’re making do with what you’ve got. It was particularly true early in the war, like the Solomons campaign, Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. We were really working on a shoestring when we did that, up against Japanese who, fortunately, were also working on a shoestring. But it was nothing like the huge—it wasn’t this monumental war machine that kept pumping new stuff toward the front, like tanks.

Right. Because we’re always taught about the huge domestic war effort to build machinery…
Sure, but once you get it built, where is it going? For the most part, it was going to England for D-Day, the build-up to cracking Fortress Europa. The guys out in the Pacific were getting dribs and drabs, when they could afford to give them a little bit here and give them a little bit there. It was up until, I guess, probably D-Day, June ’44, when we got ashore on the continent of Europe, the Pacific was just, you know, we’ll throw some stuff out there, maybe it’ll get through, maybe it won’t. Maybe it’ll arrive, maybe it won’t, if the shipping doesn’t get torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese. So you were really working out on the crappy end of the stick. You’re out there just hoping you can get something to fight with, and if not, make do.

So at the end of 10 days with these guys, were they plotting your death, or was there grudging respect?
No, that’s early—early, they plot my death. Early, they dream themselves to sleep trying to figure out how we’re going to kill that white-haired old bastard. Later, if I’ve done it right, and I’ve got a lot of experience with it, they come to understand and respect what we’re trying to do, why we’re doing these things. And they come to trust you, because you’ve had their lives in your hand, and you’ve brought them through, and you’ve changed their lives. They’ve become a whole different thing than they were when they started. So there’s a—it’s humbling, but there’s gratitude. Okay, Skipper, you’ve proved it to me. I’ll follow you anywhere. You tell me what to do, I’ll do it. That’s how we get these things done.

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That must also lead, not just to their efficiency on camera, but a certain sense of do and die. That really does come through.
It does. And one of the things I wanted so much to be sure that came through was this love that individuals have for each other in extremis. That’s something that civilians have a very tough time understanding. It’s not romance, but it is as strong as any romantic tie you can ever have, someties stronger. That’s a unique aspect of facing death with a guy at your shoulder that you never knew. You fell into a unit with him. He was as alien to you as somebody on the other side of the world. But now there is a love affair there. Now you trust each other and would give each other your last bean and your last bullet. And you’ll die for that guy, and you know that he’ll die for you. That’s a unique thing. Only combat guys really get it. I wanted to make sure that got communicated. So we worked on that a lot, we talked about it a lot.

I understand the Band of Brothers guys, with whom you worked, ended up becoming a lot like that.
Oh yeah. I just got a bunch of emails from them. We’re going to do our 10th anniversary reunion. And it’ll be the same with these guys. Because it’s so unique, so comforting, so unlike show business and their normal pursuit of things, that it’s refreshing to them. It’s a place they can go that no one else can, other than combat veterans. It’s a special understanding.

Thanks so much for explaining it to us, sir. It’s been an honor.
Thank you, ma’am.

Captain Dale Dye in 2004 (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Captain Dale Dye in 2004 (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)