I’ve always loved listening to stories from old people.
I conducted my first “interview” when I was about 8 or 9 years old, talking to a gentleman that my parents were close friends with. He had been a veteran of WWII and I was captivated by his stories. Since then, I’ve made a career out of telling other peoples stories through images.
It almost never fails when I meet a veteran and ask them to let me interview them, they tell me that they don’t have anything interesting to tell. Then, of course, I start digging and asking questions, and always… the stories and memories start coming out.
But whenever someone asks me questions, I often find myself saying the same thing – that I’m not interesting… That I’m just a camera nerd with no stories of my own. Sometimes I have to force myself to separate the forest from the trees in order to tell my own stories.
One of those stories happened exactly one year ago today (as of the date of this article) so it feels appropriate to reminisce. January 20, 2022 was a day that will stay with me forever as one of the most memorable experiences of my career as a filmmaker.
It was our 2nd day of filming with WWII veteran Carl Juhl. We had filmed his main interview a few days before Thanksgiving in 2021 and we had waited until after the holidays to film the 2nd half of his story. Carl had been a Ball Turret Gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress during WWII. During the interview, Carl had a little bit of a hard time remembering detailed stories of his experiences and we really wanted to get deeper and more personal with his story. We were incredibly fortunate that there happened to be a fully restored and air-worthy B-17 at a museum just 45 minutes away. We made arrangements with the museum staff and got permission to come film there with Carl. We knew that by getting him up close with the airplane, that the memories would come back to him.
And we were right.
The museum is a gigantic aircraft hangar filled with historic airplanes and right smack in the middle is this huge, beautiful B-17. (They actually have two B-17’s and the other was in progress of being restored.) From the moment Carl saw the plane, he started talking and telling stories… even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
For me, it felt like the plane itself became a time machine and Carl was a 96 year old travel guide. It was pleasantly warm with sunshine and we were able to keep the hangar doors open. Since it was January, the midday sun was already low in the sky, beaming shafts of light into the hangar. It couldn’t have been more perfect to set a mood of nostalgia while we followed our time-traveling tour guide.
Despite being 80+ years removed from WWII, there was this pervasive sense of connection. As I climbed inside the plane and looked around and touched the airframe, the doorways and the machine guns, WWII suddenly became much more real to me than it had ever been. The stark interior spoke to me that this machine which we now refer to as a “beautiful” relic was, in fact, something conceived out of frantic desperation and the will to survive a horrific conflict. There’s nothing comfortable or aesthetic about it. It had one very grim purpose for existing and it was thoughtfully designed to meet that purpose. The daylight was flooding through the windows where the side machine guns were mounted. I paused to let it sink in. I felt like I was having flashbacks that weren’t my own.
As we continued our tour, we worked our way forward inside the airplane. The next room in front of the gunners bay is the radio room, in front of that is the bomb bay and then the cockpit. In order to get through the bomb bay to the cockpit, there is a narrow cat-walk about 12 inches wide and about 10 feet long.
I had this idea for a camera shot where I wanted to be up in the cockpit looking backwards with Carl standing in the Radio Room and let him tell a story with the bomb bay filling the foreground of the frame. That was my plan. I wasn’t going to try to make him to cross that cat-walk. I thought that might be pretty risky, considering his age and the fact that the bomb bay doors were open leaving about an 8 ft drop to the concrete hangar floor.
I got myself in position and gave Carl the go ahead to start talking. I was fully expecting him to simply stand there and talk…
…but Carl did something different that I’ll never forget.
He started talking about the process of manually raising and lowering the landing gear which had to be done from inside of the bomb bay. Then, he picked up his leg, stepped over the bulkhead into the bomb bay and started walking across. I had this moment of serious concern. I debated in my head if I should stop everything and help him so he wouldn’t get hurt. I held my frame for a few more seconds and as I watched, I saw something incredible. Suddenly I didn’t see a 96 year old man.
I saw a 19 year old airman doing what he had been trained to do. I held my breath and held my frame and just watched.
Even though he moved slowly, he knew exactly what he was doing and narrated everything. As he reached the front of the bay, he started reaching for the crank for the landing gear. As he did so, he made a comment so subtle and nonchalant that I almost missed hearing. For context, it was a bit harder than it should have been to reach the crank. There was a rope across the bay which the museum had installed for safety purposes. While he struggled to demonstrate the procedure, he muttered, “You don’t have a rope.” Such a simple remark, but it contained so much.
“You don’t have a rope.” In his mind he would have been doing this at 10,000 ft, wearing an oxygen mask, flying through turbulence and enemy fire… all without needing a rope for safety.
In that moment, even though Carl was describing a very plain task, the transformation that I saw in him will stay with me forever. It’s my favorite scene that I’ve ever filmed.
Here’s the clip:
They truly are “the greatest generation.“
As I said in the beginning, I’ve made a career out of telling other peoples stories, but this was an experience where the story I was telling became a part of my own story in a way that I am deeply grateful for. It’s such an honor to preserve these stories.
Thank you Carl. From all of us, thank you.
Carl Juhl passed away on August 19, 2022
Watch Carl’s full length video:
About The Author
Bradley has been a professional filmmaker and photographer since 2010 and has directed and filmed commercials, documentaries and narrative short films for a notable list clients across the US and international.
The son of US Air Force Vietnam Vet, Leslie Lanphear, Bradley also participated in the USAF Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol from 1996-2004 and served as a wilderness EMT as well as search and rescue instructor at the Hawk Mountain Ranger School.