Opportunities to capture the stories of what has been called “America’s Greatest Generation” are becoming more difficult, but a team from North Metro TV in Blaine was recognized for quality work in sharing stories of two World War II veterans.
The crew of six, led by producer and director Damian Kussian, were one of two organizations to receive an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy in the historic/cultural/nostalgic program category. The other team from FOX Sports North also received an award for a story on Jackie Robinson Day.
North Metro TV is the public access television studio that serves the cities of Blaine, Centerville, Circle Pines, Ham Lake, Lexington, Lino Lakes and Spring Lake Park.
Kussian worked with Olga Lezhepekova, Ariana Nyman, Brian Bradbury, Dale DiMassi and Matt Waldron to tell the stories of former tail gunner Vince Parker and former navigator Bob Clemens, who both flew on B-17 bomber’s during World War II with the 15th Air Force.
“Capturing the stories of these two American heroes was an unforgettable experience,” said Kussian, who brought North Metro TV its only other Upper Midwest Emmy with a project called “I Believe in Public Access.”
“The best part of this job is that the camera gives you access to people who you’d never get a chance to connect with,’ he said. “The opportunity to spend time with World War II veterans and learning from their experiences in war and in life will forever change the way we look at our own lives.”
Kussian has been producing and directing smaller, low-budget documentaries for over a decade including freelance projects for History Channel and Spike TV. He has been at North Metro TV for over seven years. He prefers the cinéma vérité filming style because there is no voice-over to distract from the people telling their stories in their own words.
“Aviation Storytellers: The Tail Gunner and the Navigator” started when Kussian met Clemens when shooting footage for North Metro TV on a scaled-down version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall coming to the Anoka County-Blaine Airport during Discover Aviation Days. He next met Parker when a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber landed at the airport.
Although these two men both flew on B-17s during the war, they were not on the same plane and had different backgrounds, jobs and experiences.
Clemens enlisted after he graduated high school. Parker was 16 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and he dropped out of high school before his senior year to work 60 to 70 hours a week in his father’s meat market store before he went off to war.
Parker wanted to be a pilot, but failed his physical because he still suffered the ill effects of a broken arm from when he fell out of a tree as a kid, but he eventually was able to be a tail gunner. Clemens got the highest test scores possible for all three categories — bombardier, navigator and pilot — and chose to be a navigator.
Clemens’ job was to get the B-17 to drop the bomb on the right spot, while Parker shot at the enemy. On Clemens’ first mission, he was struck in the head by a piece of flak as he was looking for an oil refinery in a suburb of Vienna, Austria, the plane was supposed to bomb. Thankfully, he was wearing a steel helmet, but the flak dented it and knocked him down. When a commanding officer later asked him how his first mission went, Clemens replied, “Colonel, I can tell you I’d make a better lover than a fighter.”
Clemens flew 50 missions, while Parker flew 41 missions during the war.
Like Clemens and the other men who served together a close bond was formed with the people with whom they served. Parker never forgot Bud Riley, who was with Parker in basic training and school for tail gunners. Riley received a letter from his mother twice a week that always had a $20 bill and he would come to Parker proclaiming they were rich before spending the night on the town.
Riley was later killed when his plane was shot down. His brother-in-law who was also in the bomber survived.
“Whenever I put out the flag on special days, I look up and see Bud and he’s dangling the $20 bill at me saying, ‘Parker, we’re rich,’ and I always have to say ‘Yes we are rich and because of all the Bud Riley’s down through the ages, we’re free,” Parker said.
Lezhepekova and Nyman were two interns just out of college when North Metro TV started working on this project last year. Lezhepekova said she helped edit the two stories together and find free archival footage because the project had a limited budget.
Nyman helped film the interviews while Kussian asked the questions and shot a lot of the footage from inside the B-17 “Flying Fortress” when it was in flight that was used in the documentary.
Both now work part-time with North Metro TV. Lezhepekova also commutes five days a week to Eau Claire, Wis., for a reporting job with the NBC affiliate station. The work is quite different because there are shorter deadlines for television news stations, but Lezhepekova said her passion is documentaries.
“There’s so much people don’t know and a documentary is a way to learn, it’s a connection to history,” she said.
While people know about World War II in general, Nyman said these documentaries tell the personal stories of local individuals.
With so many World War II veterans dying every day or being unable to remember or talk about what they went through, Kussian said it is important to collect as many stories as possible now.
North Metro TV shared the unedited footage with the families of Clemens and Parker and plan to send this to historical archivers as well.
This was also the first of an eight-part “Aviation Storytellers” series that Kussian is working on. Upcoming episodes include World War II veterans who flew on the B-24 Liberator, the last living Minnesota woman who served with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) group and a local collector of Golden Age aircraft.
Despite all that Clemens and Parker have done, Lezhepekova was struck by their modesty when she asked them what they thought about being part of what has been called “America’s Greatest Generation.”
“Those guys deserve the spotlight,” she said. “They are truly our nation’s heroes.”
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org
To view “Aviation Stories: The Tail Gunner and the Navigator,” visit North Metro TV’s website at www.northmetrotv.com.