World War II documentary filmmaker Tim Gray knows all about deadlines. He met them daily for years as a TV news and sports reporter. But he's now working against the most imposing, most important deadline of his career. The men and women whose stories he tells are dying at the rate of 1,000 a day.
"They're at the age where many are willing, for the first time, to share their stories," Gray says. "They generally don't volunteer, but if asked they are willing. So, yeah. I'm up against it. Most of these men and women will be gone in the next five or 10 years and then it's all over."
At six years old, Gray picked up a World War II encyclopedia and couldn't put it down. He became fascinated with the battle to save the world and the power of storytelling. "You had good. You had evil. You had heroes and cowards. You had amazing stories from both the Pacific and Europe."
Gray used his storytelling skills to build a successful career as a TV sportscaster and reporter, but with the clock ticking on first-hand access to World War II veterans, he took a huge gamble. He quit his job in TV and reinvented himself as a documentary filmmaker. His first two films, both on World War II, won him Emmys for writing and special achievement.
"I learned how to tell a story from some great people in some great TV markets," he says. "And, of course, World War II provides the perfect backdrop for compelling drama."
Gray may know World War II veterans as well as anyone alive. He's been to the battlefields on which they fought -- in both Europe and the Pacific. He understands the history that led to the conflicts and the strategies employed to end them. But his greatest skill may be his ability to coax out of elderly veterans the first-hand accounts of what they experienced as 18- and 19-year-olds.
The stories come slowly at first, but as Gray earns their trust, they open up, releasing the personal nightmares that have haunted them for six decades. The experience is painful but also cathartic. Gray has helped many D-Day veterans return to Normandy, France where they come face to face with a now peaceful and beautiful Omaha Beach -- much different from the carnage they witnessed on June 6, 1944. He's followed veterans to the American cemeteries throughout Europe where so many of their friends and their childhood dreams are buried.
Gray says the greatest personality characteristic shared by WWII vets is not their bravery but rather, their humility. They don't view themselves as heroes. They simply had a job to do and they did it.
They willingly signed up for combat duty. When they fought in the war, they didn't complain. When they came home from the war, they didn't complain. They grew up in the Depression. It was a very difficult time in the 1930s. Their parents taught them that you do a job, you do it right, you finish it and you move on to the next thing. And that's exactly what those who were fortunate enough to survive did.
Gray wishes World War II vets were honored and revered as much at home as they are overseas. In France, they're celebrated as ageless heroes who liberated Europe from Nazi enslavement and saved the world. School children beg for their autographs. Teenagers are anxious to pose for photos with them. The elderly break into tears of joy remembering the day they risked their lives and so many others gave theirs to free them.
Tim Gray is doing his part to honor their sacrifice and preserve their memory. He has four more documentary projects on WWII in development and he's scrambling to get them funded and produced before the most important deadline of his career arrives.
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