Tracie Hunter is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who, for the past five years, has focused her film skills on telling the stories of World War II veterans. Through her organization WWII Beyond the Call, Hunter and her team of volunteer filmmakers have been seeking out and capturing the harrowing stories of soldiers from history’s greatest conflict. Her latest work “A Rendezvous With Destiny,” about the last three surviving members of the 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles,” premiered on May 29 at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio.
Hunter took the time to answer a few questions about the new release and the importance of capturing these historical moments of heroism and sacrifice.
Dustin Bass: How and why did you become interested in creating documentaries about World War II veterans?
Tracie Hunter: A few reasons. I was born into a family with a long line of military service, with my father serving in the Army for most of my life. Growing up on bases and in this environment, I gained an understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices of our veterans. My grandfather served in the Army as well, during World War II in the European theater. He was a Purple Heart recipient and also a POW of Stalag 9B. I felt that by creating documentaries based on the experiences of our World War II veterans, it could help not only bring understanding to this critical piece of our human history, but also offer a safe platform for our veterans to share their stories.
Mr. Bass: What is “A Rendezvous With Destiny” about?
Ms. Hunter: “A Rendezvous With Destiny” is centered around the last remaining 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles” featuring Toccoa original Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, Dan McBride, and Dick Klein. The film focuses on the history of the 101st Airborne Division and the three veterans’ shared experiences through D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge.
Mr. Bass: How did “A Rendezvous With Destiny” come about?
Ms. Hunter: Back in 2019, I was approached by Dutch author and veteran LTC. Jos Groen. He wrote a wonderful book called “Three of the Last WWII Screaming Eagles” that tells the biographies of each of these veterans. His hope was that our team at Beyond The Call could bring his book to the big screen. I remember making my first phone call to Mr. Dan McBride to set up an interview for this. After only a few minutes on the phone, I knew I could not pass on helping to share this part of history.
Mr. Bass: What has it been like interviewing and spending time with veterans of one of the most famous divisions in World War II history?
Ms. Hunter: My time with these men has been priceless. In documentary filmmaking, you really dive in and get to know the film subjects and their families. Something we really try to focus on at Beyond The Call is our relationships with the veterans and making sure they feel cared about and heard long after the cameras turn off. I think for me one of the most fascinating parts of my time with these men was getting to know what they did with their 75-plus years after the war. Dan McBride built his own planes and was a train conductor. Dick Klein married the love of his life, June, and Mr. Jim “Pee Wee” Martin still continues to jump! They are just incredible individuals that have truly made the most of their lives.
Mr. Bass: You actually parachuted during the shooting of this documentary, correct? What was that like?
Ms. Hunter: [Laughs] I did! Through this process, Dan McBride and I have become great friends. He told me I ought to try jumping some time. I couldn’t really say no to an original 101st Veteran on this recommendation. So this past March, I joined up with Liberty Jump Team and did my five static line jumps required to earn my jump wings. Dan was waiting for me below to welcome me in from the drop zone. It was a pretty remarkable experience. One of the coolest parts of this was that my last two jumps were out of an original World War II C-47 plane.
Mr. Bass: Did the veterans parachute as well?
Ms. Hunter: During my week at jump school, no. However, for Jim “Pee Wee” Martin’s 99th birthday, I had the pleasure of watching him jump with the Round Canopy Parachuting Team down in Palatka, Florida.
Mr. Bass: How did it feel to parachute and earn your wings?
Ms. Hunter: What was happening didn’t really sink in until that door opened to the first plane I jumped out of. There is no tandem jump in this so you have to have a lot of faith in your instructors and also in yourself to get you down to the ground safely. Dan McBride was there for my training and jumps. He told me, with a big belly laugh, that he had “worked all the kinks out” back in 1942 when it was all experimental and that I would be just fine. He also told me if I made it through the jump school course he would personally pin my wings on me at the ceremony. That’s one of the best feelings in the world to know your personal hero believes in you. Jumping for me was one way I could gain a better understanding and get a very small taste of what these men went through.
Mr. Bass: How do you feel the documentary turned out? And is there a sense of relief or sadness or both that the project is completed?
Ms. Hunter: This has been one of the most difficult yet rewarding projects to date. Working with World War II veterans, you always feel the clock is ticking. Time is of the essence! At the time of the pandemic and COVID outbreak, we had only filmed with Dan. Everything came to a screeching halt, and all we could do was wait and hope for the veterans to still be with us when it was a safer time to visit and interview them. I feel incredibly grateful to say that all three are still here with us today and will be able to see their film. To know we were able to complete this story despite what the past year has looked like for the world means everything. So in a way, I am relieved, because we did it. We were able to share not one but three more World War II veterans’ stories. But there is always a moment of grieving as projects come to an end.
Mr. Bass: How did the National Veterans Memorial and Museum become involved in the film?
Ms. Hunter: Initially, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum was going to be the location where we were planning to hold a reunion for the three men. When everything shut down, the museum continued to be incredible partners to us and shared our other films on their platforms throughout the year. It really was the perfect partnership for the times. Since they had to close their doors to visitors, they were looking for ways to still continue their mission of sharing veterans’ stories, and we had veterans’ stories that needed sharing.
Mr. Bass: What do you hope people take away after watching the documentary?
Ms. Hunter: After watching the film, if people don’t remember the names, battles, or dates, my biggest hope is that they do remember how the documentary made them feel. When I watch it back, I feel immense gratitude. My ability to freely speak with you today can be attributed to the bravery and courage of men like Dan, Dick, and Jim. We still enjoy today the freedoms and liberties their sacrifices granted us. Another theme the veterans touch on in this film is their ability to move on in a spirit of reconciliation toward their former enemies. I hope our viewers will reflect on how they can help to maintain the legacies of this generation and ensure their sacrifices are not forgotten.
The documentary can be rented and viewed at vimeo.com/ondemand/arendezvouswithdestiny. All proceeds will go to the organization WWII Beyond the Call.
To learn more about Hunter’s documentaries, see her website at WWIIBeyondTheCall.com/projects.
Dustin Bass is the co-host of The Sons of History podcast and the creator of the Thinking It Through YouTube channel. He is also an author.