We're not much for hero worship in the news business.
But then Carl Dalke, 86, walked past my office door.
Tall and handsome, medals clanging as he walked – how could a person not jump up and run out to the newsroom?
I might have blushed when I stuck out my hand and stammered "thanks" and an official welcome.
I might have dropped the phone when Owen Gillepsie walked past with his bayonet.
It was not an average work day.
But then, this is not a daily project from this daily paper.
We're humbled to have a chance to bring you the faces of these men and women, more than 65 years after victory was declared.
HOW IT BEGAN
For 40 years, Larry Ruehl has looked at people though a lens for this newspaper.
For the last 12 years, he's been our photo editor. His department's job is to document the daily lives of the people of this region, from spelling bees to football games to politicians being led off to a prison cell.
It's good work. Great work now and then.
But there's more we have to tell.
This newspaper's history – and our future – lies in our ability to bring you work that moves you.
So when Ruehl read that more than 850 World War II vets die each day – each day – across America, he began to think about this project.
And thus began our newspaper's mission to document these Southland men and women while they are with us – to photograph as many as we could, as fast as we could, as beautifully as we could.
Let's do it now, we said. While we can look into their eyes.
Ruehl enlisted staff photographer Matt Marton and heads of area veterans posts, and this was under way.
For months we've sought them out: in print, through phone calls, asking friends to ask a friend.
We had amazing help.
Dave Lunsford, commander of American Legion Post 991, helped spread the word, and opened up his doors. On June 18 and 19, some 108 World War II vets and members of their families came to Worth for a new version of an old-fashioned school picture day.
This project could not have happened without him and Post 991 and the men and women there, and we are grateful.
You will read the names, the ages, the branches of their service and places they served – information vets told us as they sat for photos. If they wrote Air Force, we wrote Air Force. If they wrote Air Corps, we wrote Air Corps. In the end, we took their lead as we took their photos.
There are a lot of photos here. More than once we have been struck by the enormity of this. More than once we had some doubts. But Marton wouldn't quit.
Here's how reporter Lauren FitzPatrick describes Marton's photographic process.
"As he shot, he poked and prodded the vets. Peppered them with questions: "Who's that? How old were you? What did you do on that ship?"
Teased them about their girlfriends. Asked about the names of ships on their hats. Marveled when they fit into their uniforms. Assured the shy ones the photos would be stunning, that they were in good hands. Cooed over their beloved old photographs.
And he never forgot to send them my way if they had stories to tell.
He kept going for group photo days at the Bremen VFW in Tinley Park, the Golf Vista community in Monee, the Smith Village in Chicago and a handful of private homes where vets were shut in.
His eye was overwhelmed by what he saw in these faces.
But it didn't get personal for Marton until the very end. He had been telling the vets the project was for them and their families.
Then he met Casimer Kubicki, an Army combat engineer who ended up in Germany, where he helped free the Dachau concentration camp and its mostly Jewish prisoners.
Marton tried to explain this project and these stories to Kubicki's daughter.
"If these soldiers hadn't made it," Marton told Kubicki's daughter, "you wouldn't be here now."
Then he thought about his own life. His own great-grandmother was a camp survivor.
If Kubicki and these soldiers hadn't come to liberate her, he would not be there either, camera in hand.
"It defined how connected we all are."
This is first and foremost a photo project. But we kept hearing stories that needed writing. So, with her digital recorder, FitzPatrick was listening.
Here's how she recalls it:
"My neck cricked on both sides from listening quietly, tilting my head back and forth between stories, trying not to wreck the recordings of the ladies' and gentlemen's stories in their own words, turns of phrase, accents and voices.
"My objectivity now is shot. See, I loved them all. This was history, talking to me. This was what duty looks like. And how anyone lived to tell about the frozen Battle of the Bulge, the landings at Iwo and Saipan or the invasions of D-Day continues to astound me.
"The youngest veteran of World War II I've spoken with was 81: Mort Franklin, who sneaked into the Merchant Marines at age 15.
"The oldest was 98: Clara Ferguson, a proud lady vet, one of the first members of the Women's Army Corps in Europe.
"I learned the difference between C rations (cans) and K rations (boxes), about where you had to go to get real eggs since the powdered ones were garbage, about eating slowly so you wouldn't get sick.
"I mastered how you name a ship, depending on its job.
"I heard stories so dirty I had to turn the recordings off.
"And I learned about the killing: That they had to kill the human beings unlucky enough to be wearing the other uniform, or they wouldn't make it home.
"Because making it home was their whole job."
Once the photos were shot and the stories written, Chad Merda took control. His task, as designer, was to help capture the power and the beauty of these photos and build a section showcasing the amazing lives inside it. His task was to corral this compelling photojournalism and get it into print.
His work is what you hold now. Meanwhile Bill Ruminski loaded photos and the video Matt Grotto shot and brought the project to the Web for the world to enjoy.
Whatever the medium, we're proud to have captured these 181 portraits to showcase as this Veterans Day approaches.
We know there are other wars since, and we know men and women fight across the world on this very day.
This project does not diminish what they have done, and what they will do.
But today we bring you memories of another era.
We bring you these Faces of Freedom.
Join us in thanking them for their service, sacrifice and stories.
Join with us in thanking them for giving their youth in service to this great nation we call home.
Michelle Holmes, editor
Photographer Matt Marton (from left), staff writer Lauren FitzPatrick, publisher Jerry Alger, editor Michelle Holmes, photo editor Larry Ruehl,
page designer Chad Merda and Web editor Bill Ruminski.