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One man’s urgent mission: Photographing World War II veterans before they’re gone

Jeffrey Rease photographs World War II veteran Alvin Lopez, 99, who served as a Seaman 1st Class on the USS Portland. (Jeffrey Rease)

Jeffrey Rease is running out of time. In 2019, he started a project that would take him and his Nikon D850 from Alabama to Utah, Oklahoma to North Carolina, Mississippi to Arizona. It would introduce him to some of the oldest, and in his opinion, most heroic people in the country. And it would give him a chance to preserve pieces of history that would soon be lost.

The idea: find the remaining American veterans of World War II. An estimated 325,000 of these nonagenarians and centenarians are still with us, with stories to tell. Rease, a graphic designer turned portrait photographer from Birmingham, Ala., wanted to hear them.

His uncle had been killed in World War II when his ship was sunk by a German torpedo. But Rease, 59, never learned much about him as a child. And Rease’s father had served as an Army paratrooper in the Korean War.

“But I probably found out more about his service at his funeral than I did when I was growing up with him,” Rease said.

So when he saw a photography project featuring British World War II veterans, he felt so inspired that he was soon making phone call after phone call looking for American vets, until he found himself sitting in front of a man named Carl Cooper. Cooper served in the Marine Corps for 38 years and fought in the Battle of Okinawa. For Rease, the 99-year-old slipped on his white gloves, did up his gold buttons and, medals jingling on his chest, posed for the camera.

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“It’s hard to explain, but after I talked to him, and did a little interview and made the photographs ... I knew I was hooked,” Rease said.

And so began Portraits of Honor, a project that has captured images of 110 World War II veterans, ages 93 to 104. Rease wants to do hundreds more. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic threw the project into chaos, as retirement homes, Veterans Affairs facilities and nonprofits went on lockdown, trying to protect the elderly.

A planned trip to Tennessee, where Rease was supposed to meet a whole group of World War II veterans who meet monthly, was canceled in the spring. It hasn’t been rescheduled. And in the meantime, Rease has learned, a number of those vets have passed away: Betty Green, 96, who served in the WAVES, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve; Tony Costanzo, 97, who was among the first men on Omaha Beach; Robert E. Puckett, 94, who fought at Iwo Jima.

“It hurts that I wasn’t able to get to them,” Rease said. “The fact that I had planned to photograph them and I couldn’t just emphasized that I don’t have much time. I wish I had started this years ago.”

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Even before the pandemic, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans estimated that 296 World War II vets die every day. Among them have been some of the people Rease has photographed, making his portraits all the more treasured by the families they leave behind.

He finds that families are frequently surprised by how much the veterans share with Rease when he interviews them. Many of these men and women have spent decades avoiding questions about their service during the war, leading their children and grandchildren to stop asking. But once the veterans reach their late 90s, Rease has found, something shifts. They’ve lost spouses, or begun to discover that their oldest memories are coming back the clearest.

“After we get past where you served and what was your role, I just let them tell what they want to tell,” Rease said. “And many times, they’ll just start going. My questions stop, and I’m just sitting there, listening.”

He’s heard their stories of being 14 and forging their mothers’ signatures to get into the Army, of praying to God when they were trapped under a boat, of finding piles of bodies the day they liberated Dachau.

The power of these memories, which he sometimes captures on video, are why Rease felt determined to find a way to continue his project when it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t ending anytime soon. Families are still reaching out to him with the names and stories of loved ones they hope he can capture. The veterans themselves are eager to have someone else to see. Given their age, Rease said they don’t seem as afraid of the virus as some might expect.

“They have been through so much worse in their lives,” Rease said. So when he travels across the country now, he packs sanitizing wipes and masks. He meets people in churches and other spaces where it’s easier to maintain distance. He’s trying to expand his project to include people who were involved in the war but might not have deployed, like the real-life Rosie the Riveters who worked in munitions factories and shipyards.

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He raised money for his most recent trip west on GoFundMe, with many donations coming from people whose family members he has already photographed. Rease says he frequently sleeps in his Jeep so he can afford to make longer journeys and fit in more veterans. He hopes to turn Portraits of Honor into a formal nonprofit, and to gather the images he’s taken into a book.

Rease knows that with each passing year, his subjects will be harder to find. And that at some point within the next decade or so, there may not be World War II veterans left for him to photograph.

But he plans to still be on the road, he said. His father may be gone, but there are roughly 2 million veterans of the Korean War alive today.

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