- Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than 400,000 are predicted to be alive by the end of 2019, and the number is dwindling quickly.
- Alabama-based photographer Jeffrey Rease is doing his part to document the lives and stories of World War II veterans.
- Rease has taken portraits of 63 veterans so far, and he told Insider that it’s surreal to hear them recount their war experiences.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
With about 350 American World War II veterans dying each day, one photographer is doing his part to capture and document the lives and stories of those who served.
Since the summer, Jeffrey Rease, a graphic designer and photographer from Birmingham, Alabama, has taken captivating portraits of 63 World War II veterans (and counting) as part of his photo series, “Portraits of Honour.”
“Even though I’m not the only one taking these kinds of portraits, I hope people will get to know about these particular men and women that I’ve photographed and just learn a little more about them, other than just knowing that they’re a veteran living in a VA home, but that they have truly amazing, heroic stories,” Rease told Insider.
He started the project to combine his passion for portraiture with his interest in military history. He was inspired by a friend and fellow photographer based in England, who takes similar portraits of British veterans.
Rease said he finds it an honour to capture the essence of those who are part of the dwindling World War II veteran population. His own family has a legacy of military service; his uncle was a World War II veteran who died in service, and his dad was a paratrooper in the Korean War. Rease’s son once served in the Marines, and he has a number of other relatives with ties to the armed forces.
But Rease didn’t only grow up hearing stories of his own family members’ service; he said he spent “hours upon hours” reading books about wars too.
“Those were just stories and now I’m meeting some of these men and women who lived it,” Rease said. “When I hear their stories, I’m just blown away by some of those things that they did and went through, and they never got publicity for it. Maybe they never even talked about it much except to their family.”
Keep reading for a look at Rease’s breathtaking portraits, which capture the essence of a handful of the nation’s veterans.
So far, photographer Jeffrey Rease has taken portraits of 63 World War II veterans.
Rease said he’s always stunned at how each veteran has a vivid memory of their experiences from the war.
“They’re sharp as a tack on those old memories,” Rease said of the veterans he’s photographed. “They remember what they did, their job, their training – just the experiences that they had – and it’s that long-term memory that just doesn’t go away for most of them.”
Pictured above is Army Pfc. Brad Freeman, a World War II veteran who joined the military as a paratrooper and was injured in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
“A lot of the veterans are really open to young people, especially, knowing their stories and the stories of people who didn’t make it back,” Rease said.
Rease uses an understated backdrop and lets the veterans’ stories shine.
“I’ll ask them basic questions about their time in the service and what they did, and I don’t press them beyond what they want to talk about,” Rease said. “I assure them that I don’t want anything from them, just the chance to hear their stories.”
This is William Massey, who piloted a B-17 plane during World War II. Massey survived having his plane shot down in 1944.
Massey was a pilot of a 10-person crew on a B-17 bomber plane when it was shot down on one of their missions.
He told Rease the plane exploded and he was blown out from the door of the plane, leaving him hanging onto a parachute in one hand at 26,000 feet in the air. Massey was able to connect his parachute to a loop on his clothing, and he landed in a pasture in France.
During World War II, 1st Lt. Beatrice Price was an Army nurse. Among her many patients were General George S. Patton and the Tuskegee Airmen.
Price was the first African American to be promoted to head nurse and first lieutenant at the hospital she served at during the war. In 2012, she was presented with a Congressional Gold Medal in honour of her service.
Army Amphibious Forces Pfc. Hilman Prestridge survived D-Day. He was among the first soldiers to storm Omaha Beach in Normandy.
Rease said he asked Prestridge what his memories were of the sounds and sights upon arriving in Normandy. Prestridge told Rease he remembers “complete chaos” and that many soldiers died shortly after landing on the beach, while others drowned due to being weighed down with pounds of heavy gear.
James Schmidt was 14 when he enlisted in World War II but fooled recruiters into thinking he was older.
Schmidt told Rease he was especially tall when he was young and so managed to lie about his age when joining the Army. Schmidt was discharged after his real age was discovered by military personnel, but he rejoined the forces, enlisting in the Navy and later serving in the Korean War and in Vietnam.
Army Airborne Sgt. Don Minshew also lied about his age when enlisting. He was 15 when he joined the Army and forged his mother’s signature, claiming to be 17.
Minshew told Rease that the Army still thinks he’s two years older than he is.
Marine Lt. Col. Carl Cooper is a decorated World War II veteran.
Rease photographed Col. Carl Cooper, a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He enlisted in 1942 and served a total of 38 years in the US Marine Corps, and he was awarded the Legion of Merit medal for his service.
In addition to his service in World War II, Col. Cooper served in the Korean War and Vietnam War.
Pilot Dick Pace flew a Navy Hellcat fighter plane in World War II.
Rease met former Navy pilot Dick Pace at the annual Veterans Flight event in Pensacola, Florida, at the National Naval Aviation Museum, where World War II heroes were recognised and could take a trip in vintage military planes.
Marine Staff Sgt. Welton Hance served as an explosives expert at bases in the Pacific during World War II.
Hance told Rease he caught malaria during his service, and he was sent to Australia to recover before returning to a station on the island of Peleliu. Hance later went on to serve in the Korean War.
Army Medic Sgt. Ray Lambert served at Utah Beach in Normandy, treating wounded soldiers on D-Day.
Lambert recently published a memoir, “Every Man A Hero,” which details his experiences as a medic serving in North Africa, Sicily, and on D-Day in Normandy.
Rease said he’s always fascinated by veterans’ responses to how they made it through the war. They often say, “We just did what we were told.”
“I’d often ask them, ‘How did you do those things? You were 20 years old or 22 years old, maybe younger,'” Rease said. “And the typical answer is, ‘We just did what we were told, and we did it the best that we could.'”
Rease said he’ll continue capturing portraits of veterans and that he considers it a privilege to play a part in sharing their stories.
“I just hope people can see these stories, along with the photographs that gives each veteran a face that’s not just an old black-and-white photograph from 75 years ago, but it’s today,” Rease said.
The photographer uses word of mouth and social media to connect with local and regional World War II veterans in and around Alabama. The full “Portraits of Honour” gallery can be found on his website.
- Read more:
- It’s been 75 years since D-Day: Here’s how the Allies began to reclaim Europe from the Nazis
- Here are US World War II soldiers’ uncensored opinions about the military and their country
- The oldest living World War II veteran turned 110 with a heartwarming birthday party at the National World War II Museum
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