'I remember where I was, real good," Orion Blizzard of Deep Run tells documentary filmmakers of the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. "Out courtin' on a Sunday afternoon."
One of his first thoughts: "Where in the heck is Pearl Harbor?"
Premiering tonight, on the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, UNC-TV's new documentary, "North Carolina's WWII Experience," is a fascinating look at World War II through the eyes of North Carolinians who experienced it, both at home and overseas.
For his part, Blizzard would go on to help build Camp Davis near Holly Ridge and then be drafted into the Air Force.
Scott H. Davis directed the impressive two-hour documentary, which was three years in the making and features more than two dozen Tar Heels, including some of North Carolina's most prominent citizens. In the film, retired UNC system president Bill Friday, who joined the Navy after college, describes his 1941 graduating class at N.C. State University: "I'm sure that 85 percent of those boys walked right off the graduation stage and right into military service." And the late historian John Hope Franklin, who was a college professor at the time with a doctorate from Harvard, recounts being told by a Navy recruiter that he had "everything but color."
But the film rightly gives the majority of its focus to the stories of everyday North Carolinians, and those are the stories that have the most impact.
Into a strange camp
One of the more stirring accounts is from Jesse Oxendine, a Lumbee Indian from Pembroke who speaks candidly of his experiences in Germany in 1945.
Oxendine was a rifleman with the 82nd Airborne Division when he and his fellow soldiers discovered a camp full of "funny-looking people," who Oxendine says had lost so much weight they had all begun to look alike.
"They wanted to come up and hug our necks," he says of the liberated prisoners at Wöbbelin Concentration Camp.
The power of Oxendine's story comes in part from the innocence of this young man from a small North Carolina town who didn't know anything about anti-Semitism and had trouble making sense of what he was seeing.
Oxendine remembers entering a building that was full of people and wondering why they didn't come out to welcome the soldiers as the others had, soon realizing it was because they were so emaciated and near death that they couldn't move. "I remember going up to one guy leaning against a wall, staring into space," Oxendine says. "I tapped him on the shoulder and he fell over. He had died with his eyes open."
The stories come from all corners of the state.
Tom Alley of Charlotte was in the 101st Airborne Division and parachuted into Europe for the invasion of Normandy. Alley describes having to shoot and kill a German prisoner who tried to escape, admitting with some emotion that he sat down and "shook" in the aftermath. "I fully realized it was not practice anymore. The first person you kill is the worst. I'll never forget that. Never."
Bill Henderson, a Marine from Democrat, recalls finding his friend Buttermilk at Iwo Jima, thinking he looked as if he was buried in sand up to his waist and then realizing the bottom half of his body was blown away. Henderson, who says he was not afraid of dying, only of not doing his duty, calls the dead and wounded "the real heroes" of the war.
Hubert Poole, a lifelong Raleigh resident who grew up in the Oberlin neighborhood, trained at the only African-American Marine base in the country, Montford Point near Camp Lejeune.
Poole, who had five brothers serving in the Army, was sent to Guadalcanal and Guam, where he served in a support position, because black soldiers were usually restricted from combat.
And then there's Virginia Russell, a steely young flight nurse from Onslow County, and also Bill Ferebee of Mocksville, a Navy gunner in the Pacific whose brother Thomas Ferebee was the bombardier who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.
Then coming home
While the remembrances of battle and fallen comrades are stirring, the most emotional segment of the film may be when the soldiers describe coming home.
Viewers will be hard-pressed to remain stoic while an 80-something-year-old man breaks up remembering what his mama said to him when he came home from war.
And speaking of home, the film does a terrific job of describing the state during that time of upheaval, from families watching for Germans off the coast of the Outer Banks to the industrial and military booms in Wilmington, Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.
In short, this is a documentary that should be required viewing for every resident of the state.
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