When Ken Burns’ documentary "The War," debuts Sept. 23, the filmmaker’s focus on the experiences of everyday Americans in combat and on the homefront during World War II will demonstrate that "in extraordinary times there are no ordinary lives."
A locally produced documentary, "Columbus World War II Road Show," which will air before the first episode of the Burns’ film, will illustrate that many of those extraordinary people live right here in central Ohio.
"The good part of this is that it allows people to understand that there are heroes all over the place," commented Warren Motts, director of Motts Military Museum in Groveport and host of the "Road Show" which will air Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. and again Sept. 27 at 10:30 p.m. on the PBS station WOSU Channel 34.
"The War" will follow at 8 p.m. and continue with six more episodes.
Motts, who continues to amass his own impressive collection of military artifacts, was invited in June to interview veterans and their families about their historical mementoes, with their reminiscences taped for posterity.
Similar efforts were undertaken in cities in Ohio and across the country to gather the personal histories of the dwindling ranks of World War II veterans.
The Columbus response was impressive. Motts said he began meeting participants at 9 a.m. and continued the brief interviews, without a break until after 5 p.m.
"They just wanted to tell somebody. Each one has a story," Motts said.
The photographs and gear displayed were impressive, but the stories were the real find.
"If you just have the artifact, and you don’t have the story, you don’t have anything," explained Motts.
Motts met Ken Nash, who has kept the $2 bill given to him for luck and signed by the men of his outfit – many of whom never made it home from the heavy fighting in Alsace Lorraine.
He talked to George Peto, a forward artillery observer with the Marines who spent 32 months overseas and was saved from a "million dollar wound" when shrapnel hit the memo book in his left breast pocket.
"It amazes me, the courage and strength they had, to continue to do this every day," Motts said of the men who signed on "for the duration" of the war.
As evidenced by the photographs, they were all very young.
"They went in as boys, and came out as men," Motts said.
Everybody did their part for the war effort. Lucille Prior enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and worked in the American Embassy in Washington, D.C., working 12-hour shifts decoding messages between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt.
Prior notes that she is one of only three left from her group.
Getting these stories collected is more urgent than ever, Motts said, with some 1,500 World War II veterans dying every day.
History is often right under our noses, Motts learned. He worked as a photographer for Jack Shinn, who owned a design studio, without knowing that his employer had been a bomber pilot.
In the "Road Show" interview, Shinn displays the nose art from his plane, a portrait of his future wife with the logo "Old Black Magic" that referred to the miracle of radar just coming into use.
Shinn also relates that his plane dodged Japanese kamikaze pilots and came back from one mission with 32 bullet holes.
Along with the combat footage, Burns’ documentary explores the effect of the war on the homefront through the eyes of four small towns – Mobile, Ala., which experienced a boom in war production that brought more women and blacks into the work place; Sacramento, Calif., where troops trained and Japanese-American citizens were placed in internment camps; Waterbury, Conn., an industrial town that provided vital materiel and 12,500 men and women to the war effort; and Luverne, Minn., whose experiences were chronicled through the columns of local journalist Al McIntosh (the dispatches are read by Tom Hanks).
Motts, born in 1940, remembers the seemingly endless troop trains and convoys that passed through his hometown of Brice, Ohio, during the war.
One patriotic farmer painted an American flag on his silo, that drew train whistles and salutes as the cars raced by.
His father, a skilled welder, tried to enlist but was told his talents were needed more at home.
Veterans and family members still have an opportunity to preserve their experiences through www.ohiowarstories.org through print, still images, video and blogs. The Web site also has interactive features that will allow participants to communicate with each other and plan reunions and other activities.