They helped shape the modern world and pave the way for freedom. They have been hailed as members of America's greatest generation.
But ask Wisconsin's World War II veterans about their experiences, and they are unfailingly humble. Their war memories are moving, yet their stories are couched in terms like "I didn't do anything special" and "We did our jobs the best we could."
The veterans relate what they experienced and how it changed their lives in "Wisconsin World War II Stories," a new documentary premiering at 8 p.m. Monday, May 12, on Wisconsin Public Television (WPT). The program will have an encore broadcast at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, May 25.
More than 50 veterans have been interviewed for the Wisconsin World War II Stories project, a production of the Wisconsin Historical Society and WPT in association with the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. The first hour-long program uses 16 of those interviews, with memories from Pearl Harbor to D-Day.
A second episode, coming in November, will cover D-Day through the war's end. On their own, the stories impart a sense of how chaotic and downright scary war is. Taken together, they leave a deep impression of what it meant for these Wisconsin natives to come of age under fire.
As part of the "Wisconsin World War II Stories" project, Wisconsin Public Television staff photographer Jim Gill has been taking memorable portraits of selected veterans.
"I initially got involved doing promotional shoots for the project," Gill says. "I went on several interviews with (WPT producers) Mik Derks and David Hestad and photographed the participants during the interviews so that WPT would have images of the vets to promote the project.
"For me as a still photographer much of the time spent on a video shoot is waiting for my opportunity to take pictures," he says. "Because of this I got to hear the stories that the vets related and was tremendously impressed with the impact that this experience had on their lives and how they had woven that experience into lives after the war.
"It was especially important to me personally because both my father and my father-in-law are World War II vets. My father was a Navy corpsman and my father-in-law an Air Force co-pilot and POW."
Gill says he noticed something as the veterans told their stories. "I just felt that not only were the stories fascinating, but their faces as they told the stories went back to that time in their lives, and I wanted to try and capture that in a series of photographs."
In creating the portraits, he has employed a 4x5 view camera"an old-fashioned tool"and a type of Polaroid film that gives you both a positive and a negative. "In this way, I can involve the participants in the shot instead of just making a number of photographs and then choosing one to print later," Gill says. "This way the subject gets to see each shot right after I take it, and we can decide together what is working and what isn't."
The portraits are purposely "soft" images. "I do this by tipping the back of the view camera, which changes the plane of focus," Gill says. "The idea behind this is to make the eyes the focal point of the image and have the rest of the image go soft."
The project has been a memorable experience for Gill. "Always the best part for me is getting to meet and then photograph these individuals," he says. "They are unique and have led very interesting but very different lives. They all shared a common experience and now are able to tell their stories and have them heard by the people of Wisconsin."
By the end of May, the Wisconsin World War II Stories Web site will feature all 14 of Gill's portraits. Eight of the portraits will be part of a traveling exhibit; confirmed exhibition dates and venues appear below.
Brown County Library, Green Bay
515 Pine St.
Veterans Medical Center, Tomah
Marathon County Public Library, Wausau
La Crosse Public Library
800 Main St.
Contact: Debra Anderson
More dates and venues will be announced as they become available.
Public screenings of the documentary have also been scheduled for May and June; dates and venues appear below.
Public screening schedule:
May 6, De Pere, Bemis Conference Center of St. Norbert College
100 Grant Street, 6:30-8 p.m.
May 7, Madison, Downtown Rotary Group
Inn on the Park, 12-1 p.m.
May 7, Oshkosh, Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Aviation Center-Eagle Hangar
300 Poberezny Road, 6:30-8 p.m.
May 9, King, Veteran's Home, Multipurpose Room of the Marden Center
N2665 County Road QQ, 1:30-3 p.m.
June 18, Janesville, Circle K Group
418 W. Milwaukee Street, 9:30-11 a.m.