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Who Is Bowe Bergdahl? A Quick Primer On Serial's Latest Subject

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Sarah Koenig has turned her investigative attentions to Bowe Bergdahl for this season of the massively popular true-crime podcast Serial. To get you caught up on this ongoing story, here is some brief background on the former prisoner of war's story.

WHO IS BOWE BERGDAHL?

Bowe Bergdahl is a 29-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant (promoted from private in absentia) who served with the 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division in southeast Afghanistan. On the night of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl disappeared from base and was eventually captured by Taliban-affiliated insurgents in the Patika province. He was held captive for almost five years before being released On May 31, 2014 as the result of a controversial prisoner exchange involving five U.S.-held Taliban members who were being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Bergdahl told U.S. officials that he tried to escape while in captivity, but was re-captured by the Taliban-affiliated fighters. He says he was tortured and abused because of this attempt, and that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time. After his release and medical evaluation, officials told The New York Times that, while “physically able to travel,” Bergdahl was “not yet emotionally ready for the pressures of reuniting with his family.”

WHAT'S SO CONTROVERSIAL ABOUT HIS STORY?

Since his release, much of Bergdahl’s story—most notably the events surrounding his disappearance—has faced intense scrutiny. In a video released by his Taliban captors in 2009, Bergdahl said he was captured while lagging behind on patrol. This was later refuted by multiple sources, including Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in Bergdahl’s battalion. In a 2014 Daily Beast article, Bethea wrote, “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.” Bethea also asserted there was no patrol the night Bergdahl says he lagged behind.

Adding to the confusion, Bergdahl had sent home his computer and other personal items shortly before his disappearance, leading some to believe that it had been pre-planned. According to The New York Times, Bergdahl had left a note behind “saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.” The very existence of this note is also a matter of debate, as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were told that there was “no statement.”

WHAT DO POLITICS HAVE TO DO WITH ALL THIS?

Soon after President Obama announced the release and corresponding prisoner exchange deal, many Republican politicians (and some Democrats) criticized the move, even though Bergdahl was America’s last prisoner of war at the time. They cited the many unknowns about his disappearance and subsequent capture, as well as other issues like the White House’s failure to give Congress 30 days' notice about the Guantanamo prisoner swap.

After sitting in on a briefing about Bergdahl's release, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin told the press, “I think we can all agree we’re not dealing with a war hero here.” The issue became so divisive, some politicians deleted their earlier tweets celebrating the serviceman’s return (these tweets were easily archived, of course).

His hometown of Hailey, Idaho cancelled a homecoming celebration, even though they had held an annual “Bring Bowe Back” event during the years that he was held captive. According to Politico, this was due to “security concerns over the prospect of big crowds—both for and against the soldier.”

WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE HE RETURNED TO AMERICA?

On March 24, 2015, representatives of the U.S. Army announced Bergdahl will be charged with desertion. The charges—one count of “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” and one count of “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place”—can result in a sentence of up to “confinement for life.”

HAS BERGDAHL SPOKEN TO THE PRESS SINCE HIS RELEASE?

This season of Serial features interviews with Bergdahl conducted by screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal. It marks the first time time he has spoken publicly about his story. Boal says he recorded 25 hours of conversation with Bergdahl.

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10 Surprising Facts About Band of Brothers
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HBO

In 1998, HBO—then a network that had not yet completely broken through with hits like The Sopranos and Sex and the Citydecided to take on its biggest project ever: a massive 10-hour World War II miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Three years, more than $100 million, and thousands of work hours later, Band of Brothers was brought to the world. The true story of a single paratrooper company making their way through the last year of the war in Europe, Band of Brothers dwarfed other TV dramas of its era with its budget, its cast, its effects, and its extraordinary attention to period detail. The result was one of the most acclaimed World War II dramas ever filmed.

So, from the sheer scale of the production to the cast’s boot camp to some actors you may have forgotten about, here are 10 things you might not have known about Band of Brothers.

1. THE BUDGET WAS UNHEARD OF AT THE TIME.

When Band of Brothers began its journey to the screen in the late 1990s, one of HBO’s chief concerns in agreeing to produce the series was its budget. Today, in the age of Game of Thrones, it seems natural for the network to foot the bill for such an epic, but at the time the amount of money called for was almost unheard of. When discussions first began, it became clear that the miniseries would cost at least $125 million to produce, which meant $12 million per episode. That’s a figure that dwarfed even the most prestigious and popular TV dramas at the time, and it didn’t even factor in the massive marketing budget (at least $15 million) the network was considering to promote the event. So, what convinced HBO to put up the money? A number of factors, but having Hanks and Spielberg on board certainly helped.

''I'm not saying they didn't bat an eye,'' Hanks told The New York Times in 2001. ''Oh, they did bat an eye. But the reality is this was expensive. You had to have deep pockets. And HBO has deep pockets."

2. JEEP HELPED PROMOTE IT.

The promotional campaign for Band of Brothers was almost as massive as its budget, with HBO attempting to draw the curiosity of as many non-subscribers as possible. One of the ways they achieved this was by forming the network's first ever partnership with another company to launch a series of commercials. That company was Jeep, which was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its signature vehicle at the time. The classic military Jeep figures prominently in Band of Brothers—it appears more than 1000 times throughout the series—so it was a natural fit.

Together, HBO and Jeep shot a series of six commercials tying into the series, filmed on Utah Beach in Normandy, France (not a place commercials are usually allowed to shoot). The spots aired on broadcast television, allowing HBO a rare chance (at the time) to get its products before an audience that large.

3. IT CAUSED SOME CONTROVERSY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM.

Though Band of Brothers was largely well-received by audiences both in the United States and abroad, it did cause some controversy in the United Kingdom before it even aired there. According to The Guardian, the furor was stirred up by The Daily Mail, which published a condemnation of the miniseries for its lack of British soldiers. The series, of course, is meant to follow a single company of American troops as they navigate the last year of the war in Europe, but that didn’t stop The Daily Mail from decrying the show’s narrow focus. The publication called forward various British veterans who declared Band of Brothers "an absolute disgrace and an insult to the millions of brave Britons who helped win the war,” the implication being that the series essentially depicted only Americans as winning the war in Europe. The controversy, while noteworthy, was short-lived.

4. THE PRODUCTION WAS MASSIVE.

Band of Brothers, a 10-hour miniseries set entirely during World War II, would be a massive undertaking even now, but it was particularly gargantuan when it was produced. Some figures that prove just how big it was: According to the documentary The Making of Band of Brothers, the production required 2000 American and German military uniforms; 1200 vintage costumes (that’s not counting the newly made ones); more than 10,000 extras; more than 14,000 rounds of ammunition a day; and 500 speaking roles. The special effects alone were so massive that, by the time the third episode was completed, the production had already used more pyrotechnics than Saving Private Ryan, which is particularly impressive given that much of the first episode is taken up by boot camp sequences.

5. IT WAS LARGELY FILMED IN ONE LOCATION.

A still from 'Band of Brothers' (2001)
HBO

The story of Band of Brothers takes the men of Easy Company across half the European continent, through several different countries and even seasons. Despite the vivid depiction of all of these varied places on the journey, the miniseries (aside from certain location shoots) was largely filmed in one place. Thanks to a large tax break from the UK government, the production was headquartered at the Hatfield Aerodrome, an old British aerospace factory that had been converted into a massive, 1100-acre backlot. The various hangars from the factory were used to house the costumes, props, weapons, tanks, and other equipment used to shoot the series, and some hangars even housed various sets.

6. ONE VILLAGE SET PLAYED NEARLY A DOZEN DIFFERENT TOWNS.

Because Band of Brothers was mostly shot on the Hatfield backlot, the crew had to make certain accommodations to portray much of Europe in a small space. One key factor was the 12-acre village set constructed on the lot. A set that size is a massive undertaking anyway, but to depict the various places Easy Company visits, the village had to be constantly redressed to show England, Holland, Belgium and other locations. In all, the village ended up playing 11 different towns throughout the miniseries. 

7. THE BASTOGNE SEQUENCES WERE ACTUALLY FILMED INDOORS.

One of the most harrowing segments of Band of Brothers takes place in the sixth episode, “Bastogne.” Caught in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge and low on supplies, Easy Company faces its toughest challenge yet as they try to hold off a massive German force even as they’re starving and freezing to death. It’s a powerful episode, but most of the time the actors were faking the hardship. The sequences in which the company is huddled down in foxholes, scrounging for whatever food and medicine they can get, were largely filmed on a massive indoor set constructed in one of the hangars at Hatfield. The production used real trees and numerous fiberglass trees (which could be broken apart to simulate German shells) to create the forest, and paper mixed with various polymers to create artificial snow. It’s estimated that more than a third of a million pounds of paper were used to make snow throughout the sequence, and it took four weeks to completely cover the set.

“It’s the biggest amount ever used on one set, for anything,” snow effects supervisor David Crownshaw said. “It should be in the Guinness Book of Records.”

8. THE GUNS WERE THE REAL THING.

Every major character in Band of Brothers wields at least one firearm throughout the entire production, and many of the men of Easy Company are never without their trusty M1 Garand rifles. The World War II-era weapons were key to the production, and Hanks and Spielberg insisted on authenticity, so they went to an arms dealer and picked up 700 authentic period weapons for the production. Numerous other guns (including pistols largely kept in holsters) were made of rubber, but very often when you see the men of Easy Company firing their rifles at the enemy, they were firing the real thing.

9. THE CAST INCLUDES SEVERAL YOUNG ACTORS WHO WENT ON TO BECOME MAJOR STARS.

Because Band of Brothers includes hundreds of speaking roles, including dozens of American soldiers, the production had to recruit a virtual army of young actors, many of whom were relatively unknown at the time. If you go back and watch the series now, you’ll see several young faces that are now recognizable as major movie stars. Among the now-big names: James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, Simon Pegg, Michael Fassbender, Colin Hanks, Dominic Cooper, and Jimmy Fallon.

10. THE CAST TRAINED TOGETHER, AND BONDED, IN A 10-DAY BOOT CAMP.

To develop a better understanding of the military culture their characters were involved in, and to get them in the right physical and mental shape for the miniseries, the cast portraying Easy Company embarked on an intensive 10-day boot camp before shooting, training 18 hours a day under the watchful eye of Captain Dale Dye.

Dye, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who came to Hollywood after he left the military to become a technical advisor, served as the senior military advisor on the production and also portrayed Colonel Robert Sink in the series. Dye led the boot camp and even helped direct key battle sequences in an effort to get the cast as close to real soldiers as possible. According to the men who portrayed Easy Company, the experience brought them closer together, and made them more like a real unit.

“You hit walls in boot camp," Scott Grimes, who played Sergeant Malarkey, said. "You hit these personal mental, physical walls that you have to go over, basically. There were guys the first night at boot camp that cried themselves to sleep that I was there for, and they were there for me.”

In addition to boot camp, the Easy Company cast also undertook a version of paratrooper training to ensure authenticity. Among the challenges: jumping out of a mock-up plane fuselage, while strapped to a harness simulating a parachute, from a height of 40 feet.

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Laima Gūtmane, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Construction Workers Discover World War II–Era German Burial Ground in Estonia
A German military cemetery in Estonia
A German military cemetery in Estonia
Laima Gūtmane, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Around 35,000 German soldiers died in Estonia during World War II while fighting Soviet troops, according to the German War Graves Association. To this day, construction workers still occasionally find their graves. While building a memorial to victims of communism in a park near Estonia's capital city of Tallinn, laborers recently discovered the remains of around 100 German soldiers, Deutsche Welle reports.

The bodies were buried separately instead of in a mass grave. Experts think the burial ground is part of a German military cemetery, and say it's unclear whether more bodies remain to be found. Archaeologists will survey the area before construction resumes, and the deceased soldiers will be reburied at an already established German cemetery nearby, according to Estonian broadcasting unit ERR.

The communist Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic countries during the war, but they were also periodically occupied by Nazi Germany. Decades later, in 1995, Estonia and Germany signed an agreement that allowed the latter country to restore and operate war cemeteries and memorials in Estonia commemorating their fallen soldiers.

Twelve German cemeteries exist today in Estonia (the one in the above image is located in Narva), but reburial efforts are still likely far from over: Between 3000 and 4000 German soldiers were interred around Tallinn alone, the BBC notes, and an additional 10,000 or so prisoners of war also died in labor camps during the war, in addition to soldiers killed on Estonian territory. Many of these graves were either unmarked or destroyed, according to the German War Graves Association.

[h/t Deutsche Welle]

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