Long May You Run
In his new book, local photographer Thomas Sanders memorializes the faces, and the voices, of World War II’s surviving veterans
There are individual deaths, a sudden extinguishing of the flame, but generations gradually fade away. Ultimately, that’s what’s being documented in The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II, with photography by Thomas Sanders and interviews by Veronica Kavass. The book itself, however, pitches a slightly different line, which is that we need to hear these stories and appreciate these veterans while they’re still among us.
Sanders, who lives in Redondo Beach, grew up in Sonoma not that many years ago – he’s just 26. He took his first photography course while a high school junior, and soon got sound advice from his grandfather, Willis Sanders, a noted photographer in his own right. In 1952, he snapped a shot of Ernest Hemingway on his boat in Cuba. Afterwards they talked for hours and drank scotch. The photo, Sanders says, is in the Smithsonian collection.
The Last Good War (not so much good, perhaps, as honest and sincere) was recently published in hardback by Welcome Books out of New York. It is beautifully printed and contains over 150 full-color and black-and-white illustrations. If you ask Sanders how the project got started he’ll refer you to the brief foreword he wrote, in which he explains that in 2006 he was a senior in college and had gone out to shoot a war veteran named Lt. Randall Harris. The vet showed Sanders a six-inch scar across his stomach, and when asked what happened proceeded to reveal an astonishing story of danger, courage, and imminent mortality.
“That day he made it back to the aid station line at camp,” Sanders writes, “and was waiting in a line of wounded soldiers. A medic was going through the line to see who needed immediate attention, and when the medic came up to Randall he was holding his intestines in with his hands.” The medic knew priority when he saw it, but the severely wounded soldier didn’t budge. As quoted by Sanders, Lt. Harris told the medic: “No one touches me until all my men have been attended to.” This had quite an impact on the 21-year-old college student.
“I was stressing about my future as a photographer, my final exams, and the girl’s phone number I was trying to get that weekend,” Sanders writes. “When Randall was my age, his only goal was to live to the next day. I couldn’t even fathom what that would feel like. Right then, I made a spontaneous decision. I was going to photograph and document as many World War II vets as I possibly could.”
After that, Sanders continues, “I began traveling up and down the California coast seeking out veterans. At first I was only photographing a few men and women a day, and then I received a commission from Belmont Village Living Communities to visit their 20 locations around the country, and photograph all the veterans living in their residences. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
At what point did you seek a publishing deal with a book company, and how difficult was that? Did you sense that there was a valuable place for a book like this?
“I began seeking to get a book published in 2008,” Sanders replies. “I always knew that I would get a book published by a big publisher, I just did. I had sent a prototype to Welcome Books early in 2009, and it sat there for about eight months. It all came down to timing. Once I had photographed over 400 World War II vets I approached them again.”
This was after the commission from Belmont Villages. “I was able to add 300 vets to the 100 I had already photographed. You need a lot of content for a publisher to take you seriously in most cases. Welcome has other photo documentary books that are similar to mine, so I knew they were a perfect fit.”
How was it to collaborate with a writer, in this case Veronica Kavass, whom you hadn’t known? Did you discuss ideas together or did she pretty much take her cues from the publisher?
“Veronica came on the project late in 2009,” Sanders replies. “I knew all of the veterans’ stories, and we had to have a diverse amount of stories to truly represent the war. I worked with my publisher and Veronica in making the best choices to represent all the vets. I also had to act almost as a detective in finding certain vets. For example, I could not find a WASP [the Women Airforce Service Pilots] for the life of me. As it turned out, Edna Davis was one of the last vets I photographed for the book – and she lived right in Manhattan Beach.”
Another vet who lived locally was Louis Zamperini, who attended Torrance High School and later competed in the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin. Hitler even shook his hand. The flag he’s holding in Sanders’ portrait of him was swiped from the Reichstag as a souvenir. Zamperini Field, that busy little airport in Torrance, was named after him.
You photographed some 400 World War II veterans. How many pictures per shoot did you take?
“It always depended. Some of the vets, I would take over 100 photos. Other veterans, only five or six photos because they had Alzheimer’s or dementia and I had a very short time to photograph them.”
So did you always come away with an image that you were pleased with, or did you at times feel that you didn’t quite capture the person?
“I always came across a photo I was pleased with,” Sanders says. “There are some images that I am more drawn to from an artistic standpoint. These veterans have lived long, full lives, and there is a ton of character in their faces.”
Did you ever go back and reshoot?
“I did not ever go back and reshoot the vets; I always got what I wanted: a portrait that exuded their personality. These men and women have so much truth and honesty; it really showed in their portraits.”
While some photographers favor a soft-focus approach, Sanders evidently favors a very sharp, crisp image in which every wrinkle, liver spot, beard stubble or pore is clearly visible. These faces show the well-traveled terrain of years gone by, which is why, consciously or otherwise on the part of the photographer, the book is about a different kind of struggle to survive.
“When some of these vets see their photo,” Sanders responds, “they say, ‘Am I really that old?’ and then they laugh. There are wrinkles in the veterans’ faces from the Great Depression, World War II, and onward. I used a sharp lens to capture their every wrinkle. I am not going to sugarcoat these images and Photoshop them up. These men and women are who they are, and their faces are like maps that show every stage in their life.”
The book pairs well with The War: An Intimate History 1941-1945, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, which Alfred A. Knopf released in large-format paperback only last month. While not a book of portraits, per se, The War is filled with images of men and women in their prime, albeit often in the heat of action or under extreme duress.
The intervening 65 or 70 years have claimed most of the initial survivors. World War II vets are simply dying off at an alarming rate. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, everything fell into place. Americans were focused and able. By now, almost everything – the focus, the ability – has fallen out of place. That’s what time does best.
Kavass has done an excellent job of capturing the essence of each reminiscence. Many of the vets seem to remember incidents in which they were involved as if they were out on the battlefield only yesterday. And yet they are mostly well aware, and no doubt astonished by, the number of years that have elapsed. Robert Grudin wrote in Time and the Art of Living that “the pain of growing old lies specifically in the fact that part of us does not grow old.”
One can see the truth of these words in The Last Good War’s photos and text.
“I photographed 400 World War II vets,” Sanders says, “and 122 made it into the book. I wish I could have included everyone, but the book would weigh probably 30 pounds! I was able to symbolize the World War II generation as best I could.”
Kavass, for her part, interviewed 50 of the survivors whom Sanders had photographed.
Many of the veterans appear to be holding or wearing or standing beside something that directly references their time served in the war. Did you tell each person in advance what you wanted in the picture with them? Was everyone fairly compliant with your requests as a photographer?
“These men and women looked at World War II as a job that needed to be taken care of,” Sanders explains. “There was no doubt in their mind that they needed to fight back. They do not look at themselves as heroes in any way. They were a tad bashful when I photographed them.
“I had them hold World War II memorabilia to help them step into a time machine. This helped get such amazing expressions on their faces. Some had old medals and photos; others had nothing. I would find out their story before I photographed them to see if they had anything. If they didn’t, I would rent World War II memorabilia from antique stores and they would hold something that was relevant to their war experience.”
Going through the finished copy of your book, what is it you’re most pleased with?
“The same designer who did a lot of Richard Avedon’s books and galleries, designed my book,” Sanders replies. “It was such an honor to work with Greg Wakabayashi. It is astonishing how a designer can make a book flow so well. It is a true art. From the color choice of the quote pages to the layout of the stories, to the way he chose to put certain photos next to each other… Outstanding!”
Are you currently planning another big project? Would you want to document the men and women of another war?
“I love photographing sub-cultures,” Sanders says. “I have started other projects and, yes, there are other war projects in the works.”
You’ve been promoting the book for a few weeks and you’ve met a lot of people. What have been some of the most memorable moments for you?
“I am just about to finish my 40 day book tour. My favorite part of the book presentations are question-and-answer. People love to get up and talk about their family World War II experiences. The book is almost therapeutic for people to open up and talk about their families’ stories.”
“I love when kids are interested,” Sanders continues. “The Last Good War is for current and future generations to know their grandparents and great grandparents better. They need to know the faces of the men and women who sacrificed so much. It feels so good when young kids come up to me at the signings and are curious about the book. It is an incredibly rewarding feeling.” B