Arizona ArtBeat: WWII Veterans Portraits

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They are called The Greatest Generation; the thousands of men and women who served in World War Two. More than a thousand of them are dying each day and it is crucial to capture their stories. A senior living facility has created an exhibit dedicated to these brave men and women. We take a closer look at the exhibit, the photographer and the veterans themselves.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Horizon" looks at what has been described as the greatest generation, the men and women who served in World War II. That service and sacrifice is the focus of a new art exhibit, producer Shana Fischer and photographer Ed Kishel, give us a look at this moving tribute.

Shana Fischer: Each of these photographs has a story behind it. A story of courage, perseverance, and fortitude.

William Lancaster: I was a fighter pilot, in a P-38 lightning. And I was in the Army Air Corp.

Shana Fischer: Bill Lancaster was, was a teenager when he found himself in the middle of World War II in a plane that he had never flown before. This photo shows the cockpit of the plane. Hundreds of buttons and bill says that he had no idea what many of them were for.

William Lancaster: This airplane was, number one, it was multi-engine, two engines, and in all my flying, it was done in a single engine airplane. And, and I got in an outfit, but all they had was the twin engine airplanes, and I had to go out and, and earn to fly by myself because it does not have one fitted out for an instructor to be there to give me any instruction. So, you had to learn to fly the thing and survive it.

Shana Fischer: That lack of training proved to be deadly. Of the 90 men bill served with, 67 of them never came home. Even now, it's difficult for bill to remember his time in the war and those who did not return safely to their families.

William Lancaster: It's hard to see. I don't think anyone knows the bad side. I had, I had guys that went with me to combat, and they came over there and went down and the first time that they got in an airplane over there and tried to get up and fly, they killed themselves.

Del Ryland: Del Ryland was a farmer boy turned fighter pilot, he joined the ROTC, and soon found himself here in Arizona.

Del Ryland: I got my wings right here in Mesa, at Williams field. Went over to the military to Italy and flew there commissions and the war ended.

Shana Fischer: Bill and Del are two of the Veterans whose photographs are part of an installation at Belmont village, an assisted living facility in Scottsdale. The nearly two dozen portraits were taken by critically acclaimed photographer Thomas Sanders. What started a few years ago as a school assignment for Tom, has transformed into a way to preserve these stories before they are lost for good.

Thomas Sanders: My senior year of college, I had a homework assignment, to photograph a portrait of somebody, and living right around the corner, was this giant retirement community company. And I happened to go there asking the retirement community if there was an interesting, you know, person to photograph, and they said we have this World War II hero.

Shana Fischer: Tom's work caught the attention of Belmont's CEO Patricia will. She asked him to take part rats of Veterans in all of their facilities.

Patricia Will: As a reaction that we got, far surpassed anything that I could have imagined. Not just because there emerged a storyline from each of these extraordinary Veterans. But also, because as a result of hearing the stories, often for the first time, they began to engage with one another in very different ways. The experiences that they had often buried in their long-term memory. Merged and created a camaraderie among them.

Shana Fischer: For Muriel Pelham, it continues to this day. At 90 years old she volunteers with Veteran's groups. Stationed in Europe as a nurse, she spent several years there and came back and continued working in various hospitals. Muriel was one of 350,000 women who served during the war.

Muriel Pelham: I guess it means that, that I was, I was probably helping the women to, to crack the sailing because we had a hard time with a lot of things, a lot of opportunities to advance, and do other than routine care. So, I was glad that I was able to do that.

Shana Fischer: With 1,500 World War II Veterans dying each day in America, capturing these photos and the stories is crucial, but it's more than that.

Thomas Sanders: What is special about this project is that sometimes, the Veterans have never had the opportunity to share their stories, so with this project of photographing and interviewing the Veterans, the Veterans are able to be honored for their first time. And I think that that's, that's, you know, something very, very special for myself and for them. In a way, to give back through art by preserving history.

Shana Fischer: World War II and Korean war Veteran Carl Melin agrees. He's never really talked about his time in Japan. The exhibit is a way for his family and friends to learn more.

Carl Melin: I think that, that they can read the, the items, as to what they say, and what the different fellas thought about their activity. And about their period of time while they were serving. I don't want it to be lost in antiquity, so anything that can be done and said, pictured, proof is all to the benefit.

Shana Fischer: The Veterans are all very pleased with how their photos turned out. If not a bit surprised.

Carl Melin: Well, as everybody else, they wanted, they wondered who it was, the pictures, and the, they never -- they are never as flattering as you wish then to be, but they are factual and that's the way it is.

Muriel Pelham: While I was sort of surprised, frankly. I saw myself holding the picture and the clerk said I recognize more than the other because, because, you know, as you get older, your features change. Let's face it. And I am, in my 90s, so, I'm up there.

Del Ryland: I am thankful that I still have a head of hair. I guess that that's the only thing of appreciation, is I still have a little hair left.

Shana Fischer: For Tom, this project brings his family history into focus. His great uncle died in World War II, and his grandfather, a semi-famous photographer, snapped this shot of author Ernest Hemingway. It now sits in the Smithsonian.

Thomas Sanders: When I photograph the Veterans, I tend to use really dramatic lighting. Some of the Veterans have objects from World War II or other wars that they have hung onto, like their whole entire life, and so that helps to tell their story, so I have them hold that object up, and on top of that, I really try and not overly direct the Veterans too much. I have them hold the object, and I might have them move a bit in terms of posing, but I don't want too much of my own idea to be projected onto them. I just really am trying to capture their essence and soul.

Shana Fischer: Tom's portraits are much like the men and women themselves. Stark, unyielding, and stoic with hints of vulnerability. They tell an entire life story. One that will now last forever.

Thomas Sanders: The whole idea behind the project is making people more appreciative of the Veterans and soldiers, and through hopefully creating an interesting artistic portrait of the Veteran and reading their story, you know, I really hope that draws them in to help put their own lives in perspective.

Ted Simons: Tom's photos were gathered into an award-winning book titled "the last good war." If you would like to see the exhibit make an appointment by contacting Belmont Village in Scottsdale. That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons. And thank you very much for joining us. You have a great evening.

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