Alabama Man on a Mission to Photograph WWII Vets While They're Still Here
Jeffrey Rease has spent the past few years on a mission.
He's determined to preserve pieces of history before they're gone. Stories of heroism and survival before they're forgotten.
Rease, whose own family has a legacy of military service, was inspired by a friend and fellow photographer based in England, who takes similar portraits of British veterans.
He started in Alabama with a then 99-year-old man named Carl Cooper who served in the Marine Corps for 38 years and fought in the Battle of Okinawa. Cooper posed proudly for Rease in his Dress Blues, his chest glittering with medals.
"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 recalled to The Washington Post.
So far, Rease has photographed 218 WWII veterans, their ages ranging 93 to 104. They share memories about liberating Dachau, of praying to God when they were trapped under a boat. Sometimes he captures their stories on video.
Families are often surprised by how much the veterans share with in their interviews with Rease. Especially because many have spent decades avoiding questions about the war. But once the veterans reach their late 90s, something shifts—their oldest memories come back the clearest, he told the Post.
"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."
For the thousands of WWII vets he has yet to meet, Rease knows that time is ticking. Sometime within the next decade, there won't be WWII veterans left for him to photograph. According to US Department of Veterans Affairs, 296 of American's remaining 325,000 WWII vets die every day. Cooper died this August at the age of 101.
Rease told Insider that hearing the stories of people who lived through the war is so much different than reading about it in books. "When I hear their stories, I'm just blown away by some of those things that they did and went through, and they never got publicity for it."
You can see Rease's moving photographs and hear more veterans' stories at PortraitsofHonor.us.