Working on a Live Television Documantry
By David J. Ulbrich, Ph.D.
History and Correctional Education
Ball State University
Ball State University’s WIPB-TV produced a pair of hour-long versions of Echoes of War: Stories of the Big Red One that aired on September 27, 2007. These live and interactive programs raised the public’s awareness of the history of the Second World War in a creative and substantive format. Echoes of War could be seen on more than two dozen PBS stations across the United States and in Canada. I had the good fortune to be the right person, at the right place, at the right time to contribute to the Echoes of War as a historical consultant and on-air segment host.
The Echoes of War originated from the First Division Museum on the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois. The McCormick Tribune Foundation established this museum to preserve the history of the First Infantry Division – denoted by a red numeral one on a green field worn on a shoulder patch. Some 44,000 Americans served with the Big Red One during the Second World War. Theirs are stories representative of the 16 million Americans who fought, killed, and died in that conflict. The First Division Museum’s exhibits on North Africa, Sicily, Normandy Beach, and the Battle of the Bulge provided awesome backdrops from which eight veterans of the Big Red One could recount their experiences and memories.
The genesis of Echoes of War occurred in October 2006 at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in South Dakota. While attending this conference, I saw a presentation by Dr. Paul H. Herbert. Paul is the executive director of the First Division Museum. He spoke about the superb archival resources at the McCormick Research Center and the impressive exhibits in the First Division Museum. After the conference, I decided to visit the museum that next month. Paul’s staff rolled out the red carpet during my tour.
Later in December, a friend working at WIPB-TV contacted me about the possibility of making a live and interactive television program to supplement Ken Burns’ The War. Six years in the making, Burns’ fourteen-hour documentary focused on several dozen Americans living in four towns across the United States during the Second World War. Some were combat veterans, and others were wives and children who endured the conflict at home. Burns blended taped interviews with photographs and film footage. He also provided a pre-recorded introduction and conclusion for WIPB-TV’s Echoes of War.
Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to work on Echoes of War. In subsequent discussions at WIPB-TV about venues for a live television program, I suggested the First Division Museum as a possibility. Although I knew nothing about Echoes of War when visiting the museum weeks earlier, I believed that Paul Herbert would be interested and that his exhibits would make ideal backdrops for filming. Our chance meeting at a regional conference in October and my museum tour thereafter would make the difference. Paul agreed to partner with Ball State and WIPB-TV. Indeed, Paul and his staff provided almost limitless resources at all stages of the production.
From December 2006 through March 2007, we visited the museum, outlined programming formats, drafted scripts, and collected film footage and photographs. It was April, however, before we heard that Echoes of War would receive a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and WETA-TV (the flagship PBS station in Washington, DC). Ball State University’s Center for Media Design added a matching grant. With this news, our production efforts accelerated over the summer.
I worked closely with Dr. Kevin Smith of Ball State’s History Department, Chris Reidy of WIPB-TV, Andrew Woods of the McCormick Research Center Archives, and Paul Herbert to create several video segments designed to give historical context. We were mindful that Echoes of War should honor the veterans for their sacrifices, rather than glorifying war. Throughout the script writing process, we shed our individual egos in order to make this collaborative effort a success. Such teamwork is all too rare for academicians, who tend to compete with or work in isolation from others.
Finally, months of hard work culminated in the two live broadcasts of Echoes of War on September 27. Eight veterans shared their memories of the war. Four of these men saw combat with the First Infantry Division, including a Penobscot Indian who served as a medic on Omaha Beach. Three other veterans served with the 745th Tank Battalion, an Illinois National Guard unit attached to the Big Red One. The eighth veteran, a commander of an amphibious landing craft on D-Day, represented the U.S. Navy.
As a segment host, I interviewed Corporal John Dunk and Private Albert Piper about their experiences during the Battles of Kasserine Pass and El Guettar in North Africa. They also commented on the value of their basic training. This initial conversation followed our pre-arranged outline. Later in each program, however, queries by phone and email came rolling in from as near as Illinois and as far as Hawai’i. John, Albert, and the six other veterans demonstrated poise and stamina in answering those viewers’ questions off the cuff. Their compelling responses dealt with issues of combat motivation, memory, and religion, all aspects of the “new” military history.
The Echoes of War project includes several other media beyond television. A web page can be found at www.bsu.edu/echoesofwar. It includes links to both broadcasted versions of Echoes of War, displays of museum artifacts, five pre-produced webisodes on the Big Red One, biographical sketches of participating veterans, and detailed lessons plans and power point presentations for social studies teachers. Eventually, oral history interviews with all eight veterans will be linked to this web page.
Looking back on the almost a year of work, I can say that participating in the Echoes of War stands as one of the most meaningful and challenging experiences in my young career. Working with the veterans was inspiring. We constructed the Echoes of War to give them platforms to tell their stories. They definitely rose to the occasion on live television. These veterans of the bloodiest conflict in human history demonstrated great humility. They denied being heroes. Instead, they claimed to be ordinary men called upon to help defeat one of history’s greatest evils.
From a technical standpoint, the veterans displayed more confidence and ease with the whole process than I did. Doing live television took me far outside my comfort zone. Indeed, the minutes running up to going on-air were very tense. Albert Piper told several bad jokes to lighten the moment. The hardest part for me was getting those first sentences out clearly. Then, not only did I have to interview two veterans with only a ten-second delay, but I also had to pay close attention to the director talking into my ear piece and be ready on short notice to pass along audience questions to the veterans. I eventually settled down and actually enjoyed myself. Doing live television was a rush, a natural high. It has increased my self-confidence as a scholar and a teacher. I hope that Echoes of War will not be my last foray into television.