The Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society will premiere a new documentary, “A Conversation with American Heroes from Martinsville & Henry County,” on Sunday, May 29, at 3 p.m. in the Walker Theatre of Patrick & Henry Community College.
Commissioned by the Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission, the documentary was produced by the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and Rudy’s Girl Media.
Interviewers W.C. Fowlkes and Joe Keiper spoke with a number of local World War II veterans about their experiences and memories serving during the war. Those interviewed for the documentary were Mary Bull, Leonard Hairston, Edward Joyce, Clifford Henry Kesler, Jesse Creed Maxey, Chester Moore, William Plonk, Sr., Arnold Prillaman, John Redd, Talmadge Seay, Bruce Spencer, Howard White, and Andrew Wright.
Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society President John Phillips said the documentary “achieves the Historical Society’s mission of collecting, transcribing, and publishing oral histories and stories about our past. It also demonstrates why we feel so strongly about listening to and recording oral history—eleven of the thirteen veterans interviewed are now deceased.”
“When we started this project, there was just a need and there was no mechanism to fulfill that need,” said Keiper. “At the time, the Historical Society was putting up a Martinsville-Henry County World War II exhibit to honor the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.”
With that project on the mind of the board, he said, “we realized we’ve got all these veterans and they’re ageing. A lot of them are in their 90s. So, we took it on ourselves to try to meet with as many as we could.”
Keiper said then-mayor Danny Turner connected the team to some interviewees. They also received help from other local veterans and the local VFW.
“We would meet with these people in their homes, sometimes at the VA hospital,” and, with the help of Virginia Museum of Natural History staffer Zach Ryder recording and doing sound, Keiper and Fowlkes spoke with the veterans about their experiences.
“Some of it was kind of hard to listen to,” Keiper recalled. “They went through some terrible things to serve their country.”
He credited then-Historical Society President Glenn Wood with finding funding to secure the talents of Natalie Hodge and her company, Rudy’s Girl Media, which turned the raw footage into a film. “If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have gotten where we are today,” Keiper said.
As the son of a WWII veteran and a combat veteran himself, Fowlkes said working on the project meant a great deal to him. He recalled asking his father about the war. “He never wanted to talk about it,” Fowlkes said. In his later years, particularly after his son joined the military, Fowlkes said his father opened up a bit about his experiences.
“I don’t think many of them over there got through it without some difficult times, and some of them didn’t ever talk about it,” he said.
Fowlkes said he believes some find it easier to talk candidly with him because shares similar experiences. “They knew that I had been in combat. It’s difficult to talk about these things when you’re talking to someone who hasn’t been in the military” because of a fear they will not understand the experience.
“Some were in some really scary situations,” Fowlkes said. “As they were talking to me, they would get choked up. That long ago and they still get emotional.”
He recalled that many of the veterans he spoke to said, “gosh, I didn’t do anything.” However, he spoke with one veteran, a woman, who shook the hand of President Truman, and another who was just offshore when Japan was hit with a nuclear bomb. He later flew over the bombed area, becoming one of just a few people in the world who saw the destruction.
“It was certainly a treat to talk to them,” Fowlkes said.
The Commemoration Commission, appointed by the Virginia General Assembly, planned, developed, and carried out programs and observances to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I and the 75th anniversary of World War II. Its work is guided by its purposes to honor our veterans, whose sacrifices can never be forgotten, and, in doing so, communicate to today’s service members that they will be remembered; inspire a desire to learn more by providing opportunities for Virginians to explore personal connections to WWI and WWII and by highlighting multiple aspects of the state’s role in both wars; and connect through travel and tourism by helping visitors to connect to museums, memorials, and sites in Virginia related to WWI and WWII.
Attendees at the premier are asked to wear military uniform or red, white, and blue. A reception will follow the screening.
More information is available at https://fb.me/e/1VODTw6SY.