World War II documentary filmmaker Tim Gray knows all about deadlines. He met them daily for years as a TV news and sports reporter. But he’s now working against the most imposing, most important deadline of his career. The men and women whose stories he tells are dying at the rate of 1,000 a day.
“They’re at the age where many are willing, for the first time, to share their stories,” Gray says. “They generally don’t volunteer, but if asked they are willing. So, yeah. I’m up against it. Most of these men and women will be gone in the next five or 10 years and then it’s all over.”
At six years old, Gray picked up a World War II encyclopedia and couldn’t put it down. He became fascinated with the battle to save the world and the power of storytelling. “You had good. You had evil. You had heroes and cowards. You had amazing stories from both the Pacific and Europe.”
Gray used his storytelling skills to build a successful career as a TV sportscaster and reporter, but with the clock ticking on first-hand access to World War II veterans, he took a huge gamble. He quit his job in TV and reinvented himself as a documentary filmmaker. His first two films, both on World War II, won him Emmys for writing and special achievement.
“I learned how to tell a story from some great people in some great TV markets,” he says. “And, of course, World War II provides the perfect backdrop for compelling drama.”
Gray may know World War II veterans as well as anyone alive. He’s been to the battlefields on which they fought — in both Europe and the Pacific. He understands the history that led to the conflicts and the strategies employed to end them. But his greatest skill may be his ability to coax out of elderly veterans the first-hand accounts of what they experienced as 18- and 19-year-olds.
The stories come slowly at first, but as Gray earns their trust, they open up, releasing the personal nightmares that have haunted them for six decades. The experience is painful but also cathartic. Gray has helped many D-Day veterans return to Normandy, France where they come face to face with a now peaceful and beautiful Omaha Beach — much different from the carnage they witnessed on June 6, 1944. He’s followed veterans to the American cemeteries throughout Europe where so many of their friends and their childhood dreams are buried.
Gray says the greatest personality characteristic shared by WWII vets is not their bravery but rather, their humility. They don’t view themselves as heroes. They simply had a job to do and they did it.
They willingly signed up for combat duty. When they fought in the war, they didn’t complain. When they came home from the war, they didn’t complain. They grew up in the Depression. It was a very difficult time in the 1930s. Their parents taught them that you do a job, you do it right, you finish it and you move on to the next thing. And that’s exactly what those who were fortunate enough to survive did.
Gray wishes World War II vets were honored and revered as much at home as they are overseas. In France, they’re celebrated as ageless heroes who liberated Europe from Nazi enslavement and saved the world. School children beg for their autographs. Teenagers are anxious to pose for photos with them. The elderly break into tears of joy remembering the day they risked their lives and so many others gave theirs to free them.
Tim Gray is doing his part to honor their sacrifice and preserve their memory. He has four more documentary projects on WWII in development and he’s scrambling to get them funded and produced before the most important deadline of his career arrives.
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Tim Gray Media’s Richard Winters Leadership project received a nice mention in the February edition of World War II Magazine. Our 11 year old fundraiser Jordan Brown was saluted by the magazine for his extraordinary efforts to raise money for the project. Jordan has now raised over $30,000 for the monument and film initiative. Thank you to Jordan and all of you who have contributed to this very worthy endeavor. Look for another mention of the project in the April edition of Military History magazine.
Fourth’ Grader Raises $20,000
to Honor War Hero
An ll-year-old Pennsylvania boy raised over $20,000 this fall to support the construction of a statue in Normandy of Major Dick Winters, the D-Day veteran made famous by the book and HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.
Jordan Brown (above), whose home in eastern Pennsylvania is only a few miles from the farm where Winters, 92, lived, decided to start raising money after reading a newspaper article about the effort to build the monument, which will ultimately require $400,000 in donations. “He said, ‘Mommy, I want to make sure this happens;” Yasmin Brown, his mother, told reporters. “When he came to me, there was no way I could say no to this. There’s so much good in this. It was good on so many levels.” Jordan has raised much of the money by selling army green rubber wristbands, inspired by the yellow Livestrong bracelets that support cancer research, inscribed with the words “HANG TOUGH”-a phrase Winters often used in combat to inspire his men. His parents helped him get started by giving him the first batch of 1,000 wristbands for his birthday. “We need to thank these heroes before it’s too’ late;’ Jordan told reporters, saying his goal is to reach $100,000.
The Winters monument is part of an effort called the Richard Winters Leadership Project, led by a Rhode Island filmmaker, Tim Gray, and supported by many of the men who fought with Winters through France and Germany. “This is not a monument just for Major Winters,” Gray, who is making a documentary film about Winters’s leadership qualities, told reporters. “We used him as an example of what leadership was on D-Day.”The proposed bronze statue is expected to be raised in (2012) at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, a small town near where Winters and his company parachuted into France.
(Information on donating to the monument foundation and ordering a wristband can be found online at timgraymedia.coml donate.)
Providence Journal Sports Writer
SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Is there life after television?
Is there life after being a sportscaster?
Tim Gray has found one.
But it wasn’t easy.
Being a TV sportscaster had always been the first dream, one he had been chasing ever since he was a kid in South Kingstown. His father had been in and around the news business for years. His older brother Walt was a TV sportscaster. When Tim Gray was a junior in high school, he was helping out URI sports information director Jim Norman, learning the business from the ground up.
Most kids have no idea what they one day might want to do?
Tim Gray always knew.
And then in 1999, after TV jobs in Florida and the state of Washington, after chasing his dream all over the country, he came home to Channel 10.
“I had grown up watching all the people on it,” he once said. “What was any better than that?”
Five years later he had had enough.
“Sometimes you walk away from things you love because you love other things more,” he said at the time.
Still, when he finally walked away it, was a little like walking off a cliff.
“I vaguely knew what I wanted to do,” Gray says. “I always wanted to do a documentary, and I always knew I wanted to do something about World War II.”
World War II always had been a passion of his ever since he started reading about it when he was just a kid. In many ways the soldiers had been his childhood heroes, right up there with sports stars. So he made his first trip to Normandy, the beach in France which became hallowed ground in World War II. And when he saw the graves of the 99 Rhode Islanders buried there, he knew he wanted to do a film about Normandy.
But how to go about it?
He had to raise money, and he had to do it himself, had to call 100 people in hopes of having two express an interest and one have the kind of money that can turn a dream into something you can hold in the palm of your hand. He got used to hearing the word “no.”
The film got made, though. He found five Rhode Islanders who had once landed on the beach in Normandy and took them back. That became the film that’s now called “D-Day: The Price of Freedom.” It ran on 155 PBS stations around the country, and it won an Emmy.
“It became our business card,” Gray says. “It got us in the door with people.”
The next documentary was called “Navy Heroes of Normandy” and, it too, won an Emmy.
“That opened more doors,” he says.
One was the actor Dan Aykroyd, who called one day and told Gray he wanted to be a part of his projects, and will be the narrator for a future documentary on a museum in Massachusetts that has the largest collection of WWII artifacts.
Seems the former Red Sox star’s father fought in World War II.
“I sent him an e-mail two years ago and said that I had heard he had an interest in World War II and he responded,” Gray says, “and since then he’s been there every time I’ve asked him. He’s hosted events at his house. He’s become the public face of a lot of what we’re doing. I can’t say enough about him.”
Gray has four more projects on the drawing board, all centered on World War II.
“None of it is easy,” he says. “It’s always a challenge.”
There is no staff. Just he, his wife Sheila, and his father. It’s all done on a wing and a prayer. So much of it is all about fund-raising. And it’s always about taking something you love and finding a way to make it work. He’s been on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News, the Armed Forces Network and PBS stations around the country. He doesn’t hear “No.” On Wednesday he’s making his seventh trip to Normandy.
“People there run out of the village to say thank you,” he says. “Men cry. Kids cry. Everyone cries. It’s an amazing experience.”
He says this with emotion in his voice, from the men he’s brought back to Normandy, back to the hallowed place that once defined them, to the history his documentaries preserve forever. This man who has taken the passion of his childhood and turned it into his life’s work.
“It’s 10 times harder than anything I ever did on TV,” says Tim Gray, who once walked away from a dream job only to find another one. “But it’s 10 times more rewarding.”
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To listen to the segment featuring Tim Gray Media and its WWII projects, please click here.
Amid the moral ambiguity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the handwringing over weapons of mass destruction, drone attacks, and the rights of detainees — there is something startling about the raw patriotism of the documentary Navy Heroes of Normandy.
Heroes, produced by Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray, tells the story of the Navy’s often underappreciated role in D-Day and the recent erection of a memorial to American sailors on French soil.
The documentary, which recently picked up New England Emmys for writing and videography, is unabashed in its hagiography; it is openly sentimental about a time when we were right and the enemy, easily indentified, was wrong.
“It was a clearly defined war,” says Gray, a former television sports reporter whose day job is spokesman for Treasurer Frank T. Caprio. “And we haven’t had one of those since.”
The film focuses on the stories of Navy men and Coast Guardsmen — several of them from Rhode Island — who participated in the largest amphibious assault in history. And it is their stories, all the more powerful coming from a generation of men trained to withhold, that are the most compelling part of the film.
Richard Fazzio of Woonsocket breaks as he speaks of the men who died at his side. “This is the first time I ever talked about it,” he says. “I hope it’s my last.”
Ernie Corvese of Smithfield has a look of terror in his downcast eyes as he talks of hopping out of a ship blown up only moments later, killing all of those onboard.
Vincent DiFalco of Cranston was a Coast Guardsman whose transport ship was destroyed as it approached Omaha Beach — killing a group of Army Rangers below deck. “I was in the water,” he says, “and I called for my mother.”
Retired Navy Captain Gregory Streeter, president of the Naval Order Foundation, also has a prominent role in the documentary. The war in the European theater, he explains, has long been cast as the Army’s war.
And so the Navy, lauded for its role in the Pacific, has never quite gotten its due for the effort at Normandy — transporting tens of thousands of soldiers onto shore and helping to break the well-fortified German troops with relentless shelling.
That may explain why there was no monument, until recently, to the Navy’s contributions on D-Day among the dozens of plaques and statues in Normandy.
The latter section of the film focuses on the efforts of Streeter and others to remedy the situation. After a half-million dollar fundraising campaign, we learn, Alabama sculptor Stephen Spears designed a statue of three figures: a commander pointing toward shore, a sailor carrying a shell, and another carrying a gun.
It is a handsome bit of bronze and granite, on a bluff above Utah Beach. And the unveiling in September 2008, captured on film, serves as a sort of catharsis for a prideful group of sailors at hand.
Heroes, which has aired on about 10 public television stations across the country to date and is available onwww.timgraymedia.com, is not the filmmaker’s first foray into World War II history.
D-Day+62 Years: Rhode Island Veterans Return to Normandy has aired on about 155 public television stations across the country under the title D-Day: The Price of Freedom.
A new project, We Who Are Alive and Remain, will tell the story of soldiers in the E Company (“Easy Company”) who did not make it into historian Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and the HBO series of the same title.
And Gray is also working on a documentary about leadership, to be narrated by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, that will focus on Major Richard Winters, who was the focus of Band of Brothers.
Gray says his interest in the D-Day assault came out of a childhood reach for the heroic. For the black and white.
“When I was about six years old, I picked up one of those World War II encyclopedias and was fascinated by the stories and the drama of the period,” he says. “When you’re a kid, these are your heroes.”