There have been numerous books and movies made about D-Day, the Allied invasion into France and Germany, and the Pacific campaign and the dropping of the first atomic bomb. But hearing the stories personally, meeting the people who were part of this overall effort to conquer Germany and Japan, is a different experience. Until you talk to these veterans, it’s hard to put a human face on the battles.
But once you talk to them, you realize not only the reality of the war, but the tremendous courage it took to fight against the odds. From the beaches of Normandy into the heart of Berlin. From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki. Even more remarkable, the miracle of their survival.
Turning these miraculous stories into pictures was the goal of San Diego photographer Mickey Strand, whose Ventura branch of the exhibit, the California Veterans Portrait Project, is on permanent display at the Veterans Home of California located off Wells and Telephone Roads in Ventura.
The faces and stories of eight local World War II veterans who live at the Veterans Home have been captured by Strand, a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer and 24-year-member of the Navy’s elite Combat Camera unit.
The photographed veterans include Arthur Pierce, U.S. Marine Corps; Richard Dean, U.S. Navy; Rodney Farris, U.S. Navy; Roy Ebner, U.S. Army Air Corps; Claude Aksup, U.S. Army Air Corps; Theodore Strzelski, U.S. Marine Corps; Constance Cucura, U.S. Navy; and Mack Edwards, U.S. Army.
Strand, whose inspiration started with another combat veteran photographer, admits that he had to develop his portraiture skills, but that he was encouraged by a mentor to “find a project that you need to work on that will focus you, and really it was a challenge to work with artificial light.”
As he thought about it, he narrowed his attention to World War II vets.
“World War II vets came back, and they were the silent generation,” Strand explained. “They were guys and gals who didn’t talk about their service.”
Silent for decades, yes, but, as Strand noted: “A lot of these guys and gals are at the age where, if they don’t tell their story now, they’re never going to tell it, so they’re a little more open towards telling their story.”
What’s so important about a portrait? For Strand, it’s the ability to find the deeper story of a person.
“It’s an attempt to capture someone’s essence in 125th of a second,” he stated. “To tell a story of their life.”
In terms of his experience working with these veterans, he has learned something important and succinct: “They were all heroes,” he summed up. “Whether they will admit it or not, they were all heroes.”
To date, he has photographed approximately 75 veterans, including the eight from the California Veterans Home.
Constance “Connie” Cucura served in a brand-new branch of the Navy known as the “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services” (WAVES) Corps. She was enlisted from October 1, 1944, to April 5, 1946. After completing boot camp in San Diego, she served as a Seaman Second Class, coordinating transportation at the Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego. She served near the end of the war, when the women’s branches of service were winding down.
“There were still a few,” she remembered. “The Navy already had one group that had come through boot camp and they were stopping all the training for women from the Army, Navy and Marines.”
For Cucura, the most memorable thing about World War II was her contribution to the initiation of women in service. She’s proud of the fact that she helped pave the way for today’s service women to have a military career.
While Cucura was serving on the West Coast, Richard “Dick” Dean was on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Dick enlisted in the Navy on his 17th birthday, in part to help support his family after his father passed away. Dick served two terms in the Navy, from March 15, 1943, to February 8, 1946, and in the Korean War from December 1950 to April 1952.
He was a Coxswain and Boatswain’s mate and was assigned to the destroyer escort USS Gantner and, later, the USS Savannah. The Gantner performed convoy duty in Algiers, Africa, Iran, Russia and along the European coast. The Savannah escorted President Roosevelt to the Crimea Conference in Yalta in February 1945.
Dean was not even old enough to shave. “I hadn’t even had my first date yet,” he admitted.
The Gantner was designed specifically for hunting German U-boats, a dangerous job: “At 17 years old, I was throwing depth charges at German subs and I was scared to death.”
Still, as most sailors on board his ship realized, he had a job to do:
“That’s what we were there for,” Dean pointed out. “We were fighting a war.”
The Ventura exhibit of the California Veterans Portrait Project was made possible through the support of the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, which worked in coordination with Ron Brand, public information officer at the West Los Angeles office of the California Department of Veterans Affairs. Dennis Murphy, chairman of the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, was contacted by Brand and asked if the foundation would help support the exhibit.
“Of course, we said yes,” Murphy acknowledged. “We paid for this effort to be able to photograph and honor World War II veterans.”
The Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, located at the Ventura County Community Foundation in Camarillo, provides a wide variety of services to local veterans, including financial counseling, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counseling and homeless services.
“In particular, we provide support to get veterans access to benefits through veterans’ service officers,” he said.
As Strand has shown, whether in Afghanistan or on the beaches of Normandy, all veterans have stories to tell about their service. In this exhibit, World War II vets are featured and their stories are told, many of them for the first time. And it’s in these narratives that others can best understand a veteran’s full humanity.
As he pointed out through his exhibit: “In every veteran who has shared their story, I have found them to be a genuinely amazing human being.”
And for those who are still with us, one of the best services that civilians can provide is a simple act of kindness — to take time to listen.
As Strand has learned: “Sometimes I have discovered over the last four years of doing this — Just shut up and let them talk.”