100th anniversary of U. S. entry into the war in 1917 Carol Comegno
On the left are solemn black-and-white portraits; on the right, hands cradling photographs more than 70 years old.
These diptychs portraying World War II veterans as they served and as they are now are the subject of an upcoming book by Medford photographer Richard Bell, "The Last Veterans of World War II."
Bell attempted a similar project in the 1990s, when he began photographing World War I veterans with the idea of making their portraits into a book.
However, “I started five years too late,” he said. He was only able to photograph about six WWI veterans, he said.
A few years ago, he began to search for WWII vets.
“I told myself, I’m not going to miss the last one, the big one,” he said. “It’s now, go for it.”
Bell's images are on view through April in the gallery of the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township as part of an upcoming benefit, "Salute.Laugh.Give,'' for Operation Yellow Ribbon. The evening of comedy is presented by the Courier-Post (see box for details).
Bell worked as a photojournalist for years, but traces this particular fascination to his childhood spent leafing through Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He remembers seeing portraits of Civil War veterans in those pages. He couldn’t believe how long ago it was, how old they seemed to his young eyes, that they could still be alive.
He expects his work could strike young people in a similar way; for younger generations, World War II is becoming a distant memory. Hundreds of veterans die every day and fewer than a million are still alive.
Bell set out to find the dwindling veterans, and quickly discovered he had to resort to shoe-leather reporting tactics.
“You would think somebody is keeping track of these guys,” he said. “Nobody is.”
The Honor Flight Network, which brings veterans to the memorials in Washington, D.C., had the best records, he said, but keeps the names private.
Bell then combed through newspaper articles for names of local veterans and looked up their numbers. “I don’t think I got a single rejection,” he said. Many of the vets routinely get calls from reporters, he said. It was just a matter of finding them.
After speaking to several veterans in the Medford area, he asked them who else he could contact. One person led to the next, revealing a vast network.
That network eventually led him to retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who served as a Navy intelligence officer. After Bell's sessions with Stevens, he told the justice he'd like to reach out to former President George H.W. Bush.
Stevens agreed he would be a great subject. “He’s a real war hero,” Bell said Stevens told him.
Bell said he hopes he will be able to schedule a session with Bush to include him in the book, which won’t be released until later this year.
Part of Bell's aim was to show a diversity of veterans. Other subjects include the last Navajo code talker, a Buffalo Soldier who went on to be an Olympic medalist, a Pearl Harbor survivor, a D-Day survivor and a Tuskegee airman.
Women were harder to find. While millions of men served in the war, only around 350,000 women served.
One woman in Bell’s book was an Army nurse who was shot at during the war, another was an illustrator who made propaganda posters. Another, Charlotte Bart, 92, of Haddon Township, served in Charleston Harbor, transporting officers around in jeeps, trucks and even duck boats a couple of times.
Her husband was in the Coast Guard and she wanted to serve too, Bart said. In 1944, the rule that wives couldn’t serve in the same branch as their husbands was lifted and she went to work as a Coast Guard SPAR (women's reservist) for the next two years.
Though, she added, her husband had to sign her papers so she could serve.
She sometimes speaks about her time as a SPAR at the Coast Guard base in Cape May, giving audiences the rare opportunity to meet and hear from someone like her.
Sitting for Bell’s photo was nice, she said, but “wow, when it comes out in black and white, it shows how old you’ve gotten.”
The wartime photo she held was taken in boot camp and is the best one she has from that time. It brought back memories, but is only one of many things that has happened in her life, Bart said.
“It’s been so many years ago, it’s just another part of life that’s past,” she said.
Bell spoke to all of the veterans in addition to taking their portraits, and put their quotes in the book. Some were reticent, he said; there aren’t many pleasant stories from the war.
“I think there’s something on all their faces that they did something that was really nasty, really hard,” he said.
But they all survived, he pointed out. “It speaks to the indomitable spirit of the people.”
Ernest Kaufman of Medford was born in Germany and arrested during Kristallnacht. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald, but was lucky enough to have a sponsor overseas, which enabled him to be released from the camp in 1939. He made his way to the United States, where he joined the Army and worked as an intelligence officer during the war.
Kaufman's family, including his father, who had served Germany in WWI, died in a concentration camp.
“It so happens that the Nazis killed my parents,” Kaufman said. “Wasn’t that enough reason for me to go and volunteer?
Kaufman has written a memoir and, at 96, still speaks around South Jersey about his experience as a Holocaust survivor.
“I have a story to tell about the Holocaust and I’ll tell it as long as I can stand on my feet,” he said.
While an estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans were held in internment camps during the war, others served in the U.S. military. Bell photographed one of those veterans, a man of Japanese descent who served in both WWII and Korea, where he won the Medal of Honor.
Another vet featured in Bell's book was shot down over Germany and landed in a prisoner of war camp. He was Jewish, but “they never asked him if he was Jewish, so he survived,” Bell said.
Thirty veterans ages 91 to 105 and their stories fill Bell’s book.
“I wish I could have found more,” he said.
Shannon Eblen: (856) 486-2475; SEblen@gannettnj.com
Richard Bell's portraits will be on view at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township through April.
For more information on "The Last Veterans of World War II," visit richardbellphoto.com/patriots.
Dena Blizzard will headline an evening of comedy for veterans on Saturday, April 29, at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township. The event will benefit Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey and will also include emcee/comic Ron Kelly, and comedians Bob Marsdale and Tommy Highland.
The event will include an exhibit of World War II portraits by Richard Bell
Doors open at 7 p.m. for small plate snacks and a cash bar. Show is at 8 p.m.
The event is sponsored by the Courier-Post, One Funny Mother, Ritz Theatre Company, Sanders Home Services, Healey Funeral Homes, Humor Hound, SLK Partners, Mission BBQ, Local Links, Sharrott Winery, Double Nickel Brewing and Camden County.
Tickets are $22.50 in advance, $27.50 at the door. Visit ritztheatreco.org/show/salute-laugh-give/
Sanders Home Services has sponsored 40 seats and Healey Funeral Homes has donated 20 seats to be given to veterans and their guests. Veterans tickets have been claimed.