For one independent filmmaker, Memorial Day means much more than a 24-hour holiday or even a three-day weekend. For Larry Cappetto, Memorial Day is his life.
Cappetto has dedicated his craft to honoring veterans by recording their memories and experiences for future generations. Since 2003, Cappetto said, he has interviewed more than 1,000 American and Canadian veterans of conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan. “I’m telling you, without ever having been in combat,” Cappetto said, “I can look you in the eye and tell you what combat looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like, what it tastes like.”
In his ongoing documentary series, “Lest They Be Forgotten,” Cappetto not only examines such World War II battles as Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima through surviving witnesses. He not only explores the Korean and Vietnam wars. Cappetto also chronicles the Nazi persecution and attempted extermination of the Jews from Kristallnacht to the liberation of the death camps.
“This is totally unrehearsed,” Cappetto said. “When I’m interviewing veterans, it’s like they are reliving in color what happened now almost 80 years ago after World War II.” He added that “every interview I did, I can see in their eyes and in their body language, they’re reliving what they went through when they were 18, 19 years old. Most of these people I talked to didn’t talk for 40, 50, 60 years, if you can believe holding all of that inside.”
A Range of Emotion
The veterans’ stories range from the heartwarming to the heartbreaking. In “Bill the Potter,” Cappetto profiles Bill Wedeland from San Antonio, Texas. Wedeland was serving in Vietnam with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, when two weeks before his 19th birthday, he lost both eyes and both hands while suffering severe head injuries in an explosion.
Yet surgeries gave Wedeland new eyes, and two special procedures split the bone in the remains of Wedeland’s forearms so that he could use them like hands. As a result, the Marine veteran, now 72, has been able to make and sell pottery for the past 50 years.
When giving speeches, Wedeland often cites a Henry Ford quote: “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Cappetto said, “When life gets tough, I think about Bill and his quote from Henry Ford. … When I’ve had bad days, I’m going to call Bill, and I’m calling him to encourage me.”
Two other stories depict tragedy from its most staggering and most subtle extremes. One of Cappetto’s subjects, Loyd Lewis, told how he had to bury the pieces of his 17-year-old twin brother, Boyd, who was killed by an explosion while in a foxhole early during that infamous invasion of Iwo Jima.
Another Marine veteran, Frank Clark from Las Cruces, New Mexico, a clerk typist who saw no action, represents the other extreme. “He said he typed the telegrams to the families of those that were killed on Iwo Jima,” Cappetto said. “And he could quote that [form] telegram verbatim. That gives me chills every time I tell that.”
International and Personal Impact
Cappetto and his work have been featured on PBS and Fox affiliates; the CBS Evening News during Katie Couric’s tenure as anchor; Alison Stewart’s show on MSNBC; and CTV, Canada’s largest privately-owned television network. Because of his work, Cappetto received the Freedom Foundation’s George Washington Honor Medal in 2007.
Cappetto’s YouTube channel, Voices of History, has been viewed more than 7 million times since it began in 2012. His own website sells copies of his videos, which include interviews with police officers in a series called “Beyond the Badge” and with truck drivers in another series, “Keep America Moving.”
But Cappetto wants his productions to make the biggest impact with students. “My heart is really with our younger generation,” he said. “I get this from teachers: History is best learned from those who were there. They tell me you don’t get that emotional connection from a book.
“And they tell me there’s very little in the textbooks today about World War II, definitely not about the Korean War, which is called a forgotten war, and there’s really not much about Vietnam. So my documentary series is huge to an audience of people seeking to learn about our history, about our country, about our freedom.”
The impact extends beyond mere information. “It’s like time stops for an hour,” Cappetto said. Young people are especially shocked to learn the realities of war. Cappetto regularly gives presentations at schools and local events on his documentaries. “The emotion that these young people have shown, the adults have shown, tears of gratitude for what these people do. … Over the years, I’ve spoken in over 100 schools across our country, to over 100,000 students. One of the things I hear most is they had no idea what our veterans went through. They had no idea what freedom really means. They were shocked into the reality of the fact that freedom is earned, man. It’s not free.”
The True Price of Education
One of Cappetto’s short films makes that point directly and poignantly. In “Where Are the Desks?” students walk nervously into their classroom on the first day of school, only to find no desks for them to use. The teacher writes this question on her whiteboard for her students to consider: What have I done to earn the right to sit at my desk?
By the end of the school day, after no student could provide a satisfactory answer, veterans of different ages carry the desks into the classroom. That gesture deeply moves the students. Many weep. Afterward, the students and veterans hug each other.
“You students did not earn the right to sit in these desks,” the teacher told them. “These heroes did it for you. They paid the price so that you could have the right to get an education. Please don’t ever forget it.”
For Cappetto, the veterans he interviews are more than heroes. “When I look at the American flag,” he said, “I see that they are woven into the cloth, into the fabric of that flag.”
When he looks at the nation’s current turbulence, Cappetto believes his films carry an especially crucial message. “On a personal note,” he said, “I feel today we—you and me—we’re fighting for the same freedoms in our own country that our veterans fought for on foreign soil.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.