WARWICK – Of the 16 million American World War II veterans, only 1.7 million are still alive. Approximately 1,000 of the brave soldiers who fought for this country die every day. That equates to 30,000 a month. The remaining 1.7 million veterans, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s, will likely be leaving us in the next 10 years. That leaves a rapidly closing window in which to capture their stories, which is exactly what the World War II Foundation has set out to do.
In total the World War II Foundation and Tim Gray Media have produced eight documentary films, many of which have aired on PBS stations across the country, telling the stories of these veterans.
The latest film, “Eagles of Mercy,” will premiere this Saturday at Showcase Cinema in Warwick.
“Eagles of Mercy” recounts the story of two American medics from the 101st Airborne who treated wounded soldiers, both American and German, in a small village in France.
Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore of the 2nd battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, treated all who were brought into the 12th century Norman church. They tended to the wounded who lay on the pews, leaving bloodstains that still remain 70 years later.
Jim Karpeichik, director of photography and editor for the World War II Foundation, said that he and Tim Gray, chairman of the World War II Foundation, found the story of Wright and Moore while they were filming in Normandy for another project.
“We were traveling through the Normandy region of France and we came across this little church. We had a few minutes and someone said, ‘Let’s stop in here and see something,’” Karpeichik said. “They were explaining to us why there are blood stains to this day on the pews in the church. When they told us the story about the two medics who had set up in this church on D-Day and started treating people, we were busy doing another documentary at that point, but we pretty much looked at each other and realized that this was a story that hadn’t been told that was a good story that should be told.”
So Gray and Karpeichik returned to film the story of the medics who treated soldiers as a violent battle raged on around them annd the church.
Gray said the film, which premieres in Warwick this weekend, will air on PBS stations around the country next year.
However, “Eagles of Mercy” is just one of the World War II Foundation’s many projects in their quest to tell as many stories of World War II veterans as possible before their opportunity to do so fades away.
Also this month, the foundation will premiere “4-4-43: Lt. Col. William Edwin Dyess and the Greatest Story of the War in the Pacific,” which documents the daring escape of 10 Americans and two Filipino convicts from one of Japan’s most notorious prison camps. The prisoners survived the Bataan Death March and told the American public of the atrocities they experienced while being held prisoner.
Due to censorship during the war, the story is now being told in full for the first time, and the film, narrated by Dale Dye, will premiere in Texas Nov. 14.
The foundation has four other films in the works for 2014, including one on former Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun, who was also a B-17 pilot during World War II. Sundlun’s plane was shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium in December 1943, and Sundlun, with the help of local citizens, coordinated an escape to Switzerland.
Gray and Karpeichik have enjoyed making “Eagles of Mercy” and all of the other films immensely.
Some of their favorite aspects of the process include seeing veterans, young and old, and their families, at film premieres, as well as traveling to Europe with veterans, many of who haven’t been back since World War II.
“All vets react differently to being in movies, we brought some back to Normandy and for some it was their first trip back since June 6, 1944, and they broke down emotionally because it was a whole different context now than what it was back then,” Gray said.
Karpeichik added, “I get the sense for that a lot of these men they’re at an age now where they haven’t talked about it or they tried to forget about it, but they’re at an age where they feel like almost a responsibility to share their stories, so the history not only their history but the history of the other men that they were serving with, so it doesn’t get forgotten.”
Gray and Karpeichik said the history of World War II is certainly not forgotten by European school children, even two or three generations later.
“Kids over there are much more in tune with the history than they are over here because they live in nations that were liberated,” Karpeichik said. “They are taught more about it in schools. One of the recent interactions that we witnessed ranks pretty high on my list. A holocaust survivor, whose family was killed, met with students from a German high school. He told them, ‘I don’t blame you for what happened to my people and my family. I don’t blame you.’
Karpeichik continued, “In Germany there’s this sense of guilt for starting two world wars, and he let these kids know that it’s OK and ‘I don’t blame you for what happened.’”
Gray added that when they travel, they sometimes try to coordinate meetings between students and veterans.
“Veterans over there, they’re heroes,” Gray said. “It’s like bringing members of the Red Sox to a classroom here, it’s the same thing, and they’re in awe of these men who helped liberate their country.”
Karpeichik recalled when they were visiting a cemetery in Normandy with a couple veterans and a group of school children students happened to be there on a field trip.
“They spotted these guys and they came running up to them like they were running up to Maroon 5 or something,” Karpeichik said. “They started saying, ‘Who are you? Tell me what your history is. What did you do here?’ and then they started hugging them and kissing them.”
Karpeichik said it was an emotional moment, especially for one veteran who had harbored reservations about returning to Normandy.
“It was a transformational moment for him and he realized why all the people he watched die had to die create freedom for those kids so they could enjoy life the way they do today,” he said.
Gray and Karpeichik agreed that the respect paid to World War II veterans by all generations in Europe is much different than in the United States.
“We’re two, maybe three, generations removed and they treated them like rock stars,” Karpeichik said. “And these are the same people that we see in the supermarket who we’re like, ‘Come on, get going, I’m in a hurry here,’ but you don’t know who these people are and what their history is, but over there, those young people know, and have a great deal of respect and admiration for them.”
Gray added, “Over there, they don’t look at them as guys in their upper 80s and 90s, they look at them as 18 or 19 year olds who fought to liberate their country. Over here, we may look at the old guy behind the wheel driving 20 miles per hour on Route 1 and say, ‘Come on buddy step it up.’ But we don’t know if that’s a guy who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day or who fought the Battle of the Bulge. That’s a guy who probably has more integrity and inner strength than we’ll ever know.”
Karpeichik said they try to make sure the admiration the students showed for the veterans is seen in their films.
“Our stories aren’t about strategy,” he said. “Our stories are personal, it’s the personal stories of the men and the women who survived that time period. We make them in documentary form and keep them under an hour. We want to be able to engage future generations and make sure it’s something that they’re interested in.”
He told a story of a woman who took her son to see “A Promise to My Father,” one of the World War II Foundation’s films on a Holocaust survivor.
“I think one of the biggest complements that we ever got was a lady took her son to our Holocaust documentary premiere in Boston, and he’s a skateboarding type of kid, you know, he’s got the hat on sideways he’s got the pants and everything,” Gray said. “He had no interest in history, and at the end of the Holocaust film, he looked at his mom and said, ‘You know, that didn’t suck.’ Which to me, if you reach a kid who has no interest whatsoever, and probably doesn’t know the Holocaust from anything else, he watched it through, and that’s what we do, we try to engage people in our films and to be able to look into the eyes of these men and understand their stories but also tell them in a way that brings them to life.”
Karpeichik said the films have an ability to bring families together and spark an interest in family history.
“I think that a lot of families have connections to somebody they know and whether you’ve never asked your father or grandfather about their experience, if they were to come and watch a film like this it might bring about a conversation that might not otherwise happen between the family, and that can be a good thing,” he said.
He added, “So there’s an opportunity there, when people do come, you always see that, and people start asking questions, learning more, not only about other people, but learning more about themselves and their own families and I think that’s rewarding to see when that happens.”
Gray said he and Karpeichik will continue to make films and document the often-untold stories of World War II veterans, calling it a “global effort.”
“It’s just the two of us, we don’t have a staff, we don’t have employees, it’s just Jim and I doing this,” Gray said. “The goal is to continue to do this and there seems to be an interest. Next year is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, there seems to be an appetite, people want to learn more about that time period because we are who we are today because of these men, there’s no question it all goes back to this time period and what they did for us to preserve everything.”
Karpeichik added, “When [the veterans] came back after the war, they just went back to their lives, they just took the uniform off and went back to work in the factories. There was not a lot of telling of these stories, they just sat there and simmered for years. So, as many of these as we can tell before they’re gone, we’re about to lose all of these men and women who were involved in the war and their stories, their personal accounts, and we’re collecting all of those before it’s too late.”
“It’s one of the most important time periods in the history of the world, and you have people around still who can tell you what it was like,” Gray said. “But it’s not going to last long.”
If you go
“Eagles of Mercy” premieres Saturday, Nov. 9 at 10 a.m. at the Showcase Cinema, 1200 Quaker Lane, Warwick. Tickets are $10 each and seating is limited to 400 people. A discussion with Tim Gray, director and producer of the film, will follow the screening. If you can’t make it to the premiere and would like to donate to the World War II Foundation, or learn more about the Foundation’s other films, visit www.wwiifoundation.org .