Brett Watson was still a teenager when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He became an airborne trooper and was thrust into some harrowing battles. While on leave, Watson bought a Super 8 motion-picture camera to capture some of those trials. But just a few years later the rapid evolution of film technology made it difficult to watch those Super 8s—as well as other film formats. Recently, however, Watson was finally able to share those dramatic scenes with his two now-grown daughters, allowing them to witness a part of their father’s life they had only heard about.
“I’m leaving a legacy of what I’ve done in the past for my country to be preserved for future generations,” says Watson. He is among many veterans whose outdated video images were revived by Film Corps, a HISTORY initiative created three years ago by the network to digitize and transfer historic but aging films to modern formats. With an emphasis on films taken by soldiers and war witnesses (such as combat journalists), the program has helped preserve nearly two dozen films—and the stories of heroism they reveal. In 2009, many of the initial films (some of which were in peoples’ personal collections) were compiled for the series WWII in HD.
For producer Sean Kennedy, who oversees Film Corps, the effort to bring these memorable images back to life began close to home. Several years ago, his aunt noticed some old film reels in her basement; she believed they included footage of her father, a WWII veteran. After having the film transferred and digitized, Kennedy was amazed to find gripping scenes of his grandfather giving a eulogy for a fallen soldier in the 1950s. The emotional impact of seeing this footage, shot with his grandfather’s camera by a friend, helped spark the need to help restore similar films—and the stories behind them. “Film Corps helps people see their family members in a fresh light,” Kennedy says. “Many people who have served in the military have never told these stories, and saving these films and sharing these stories helps family members know each other in new ways.”
In addition to overseeing the digitizing and preservation of the films, Kennedy produced vignettes using some of the priceless footage. Many of them include family members talking to each other, often for the first time, about the wartime experiences they are watching. James Banks of Medina, Ohio, learned that his neighbor, World War II veteran Herm Graebner, had artifacts from his years of service, including two reels of 8 mm film. Founder of the Crile Archives & Center for History Education at Cuyahoga Community College, Banks has a long-standing personal and professional interest in the history of soldiers’ experiences. But even he was taken aback by what he discovered: Graebner, a field artillery captain in the U.S. Army’s 5th Armored Division, participated in the Battle of the Bulge and traveled widely through Europe. His reels—containing footage shot in England, France, Luxemburg, and Germany—show wreckage of cities, gunned-down planes, and scenes of a snow-covered Paris months after its liberation. “This is a wonderful record of Herm’s service,” said Banks, “a living record of what he experienced.”
Last year, HISTORY expanded the program and released the series Vietnam in HD. Given the stigma many Vietnam vets faced, the series and project were particularly important for the veterans and family members. Sonny Silva, a radio-telephone operator in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, left many of his experiences untold after returning from Vietnam. And like many other personal films from that war, his footage, “quickly found [its] way into the closet, along with our pride, memories and uniforms.” Restoring the film prompted Silva to finally tell his story, which renewed his sense of pride in having served. Part of his motivation to offer his films to the Film Corps project was to honor the memories of fellow soldiers who did not return from the war. “If we can get these stories out into the public’s eye, into the schools, and into the textbooks, then maybe it’s not too late to change the way history looks at the Vietnam veteran,” says Silva. “And with programs like Film Corps, perhaps [some 58,000] of my brothers and sisters won’t have died in vain.”
Reviving aged footage also helped other Vietnam veterans to heal. Frank Lee, a combat cameraman, recently shared his stories of war with his son for the first time—along with the restored footage. “Participating in the Film Corps program was very emotional and meaningful for me,” said Lee. “I had not told the whole story of my Vietnam experience before, and for the project, I told my son what I went through from start to finish. It was very important for him to see that side of me, and to know what I had gone through in Vietnam.”
There still remain countless hours of film footage at risk of being lost forever. But many groups are trying to prevent that from occurring. Besides Film Corps, nonprofits like the National Film Preservation Foundation help preserve and archive films critical to American popular culture and history. Together these programs are saving valuable treasures, and helping people to share stories that might otherwise be left untold.
Kim Gilmore is a staff historian and director of corporate outreach for HISTORY®/A+E Networks.