NEW YORK—Rick Carrier’s life reads like a novel. He fought Nazis in World War II, liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, and went on to rub elbows with film stars of the 1950s. He is a member of the Greatest Generation, a term coined by journalist Tom Brokaw.
At 87, Carrier is a picture of health. He moves a little slower these days, but his mind is sharp; the smile vibrant. He tells stories with the precision of an engineer coupled with the comedic delivery of a late-night talk show host.
Enemies to Friends
Carrier grew up outside of Pittsburgh during the Great Depression when times were tough and money was scarce. Some of the kids formed gangs and one such gang was led by a kid named Anthony Pocky.
Carrier recalled on a June afternoon near Chelsea Piers, “I used to get beat up all the time coming from school. They’d beat me up to see if I had a nickel or dime so they could get the money.”
Tired of the beatings, Carrier decided to carry a weapon for protection. His father was an engineer, so he went to his shop and built a club with a lanyard to hang from his belt.
After a humiliating incident in which Pocky made Carrier rub dog poop on his own face, Carrier planned his revenge. Knowing Pocky’s route to school, Carrier waited around the corner. “I had the club ready. When his face came around I whacked him across the face, jumped on his shoulders, and started beating him up,” Carrier said.
The next day, Carrier saw Pocky at the park looking haggard and beat up. When he approached him, Pocky stuck out his hand and invited him to join his gang. “He became my closest friend,” Carrier said.
During World War II, Pocky joined the Navy as a diver while Carrier was in the Army as an engineer but the two ended up meeting in France after Pocky searched him out. “I see Pocky in a sailor’s outfit and we started talking. He’d tell me about all his things up there in Cherbourg working on submarines and we’re talking about old times. He [Pocky] said, ‘See this tooth? It’s fake, the one you knocked out!'”
Secret to Survival
Prior to being shipped off to fight during World War II, Carrier’s grandmother, a full-blooded Cherokee, gave him advice. She told him to become the spirit of a snake. “She said the reason is that way you are able to see something coming at you before it gets there, and also you’ll be able to prepare yourself. And in addition to that, you’re flat on the ground and you’re looking up. Nobody can see you.”
She also told him to become completely one with nature, and by being a part of everything he saw, he would be able to control all of it. Carrier recalled what she said, “If you’re looking at something and you see somebody that doesn’t like you and they have a gun pointing at you, you’ll know the moment he’s going to pull the trigger, and that’s when you fall to the ground before he shoots.”
Neither Carrier nor his grandmother knew what battles he would be fighting, but he stored his grandmother’s advice in his memory as he was shipped off to Europe for training.
“That’s the way I’ve approached life. That’s why I’m sitting here today. That’s how I survived WorId War II and not one mark on me,” Carrier said.
Carrier was one of the brave soldiers tasked with storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was in charge of blowing up the obstacles on the beach so the infantry could move in with a clear path. “I was in one of the worst places you can imagine. The [stuff] flying through the air, bullets and bombs and mortars and shrapnel flying all over me,” Carrier said.
[ad]He fought in four major battles after D-Day, following behind General Patton’s Army doing mostly recon work.
On April 10, 1945, Carrier’s 20th birthday, in Weimar, Germany, a local priest told him about a camp. That camp was Buchenwald, the largest concentration camp in Germany.
“I was a battle-hardened soldier, but I never witnessed anything as horrible as those walking skeletons,” Carrier said at an event in March.
After reporting the location of the camp to his superiors, he returned the next day with reinforcements and blew the lock off the camp’s main gate, thus ending the suffering of those held captive.
One of the prisoners was a frail young boy named Irving Roth. He came to thank Carrier and a photographer snapped a photo. That image was placed on a medal which Carrier proudly displays.
At the end of 2011, Carrier was reunited with Roth, 66 years after they met.
A Man Sketching
Carrier’s military career was action-packed, but short-lived. After the war he went to Paris to study art. “I picked up on all the inside on real existentialism, which was tops in Paris at the time,” Carrier said. He met several existential painters of the time, one of which was Pablo Picasso.
“He would sit there, raise hell, and make sketches,” Carrier said of the artist. “He was very possessive. If he wanted something he would look to his woman and say, ‘Get it for me’ and she would.”
Carrier said he treated all the artists around him the same, “I just sit there and listened to them and look at them. But I didn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s so and so.”
Lights, Camera, Action
In 1955 producer Howard Hughes was set to release his latest film “Underwater!” and was looking for something unusual for the premiere.
Carrier had just finished publishing his first book “Dive,” the first how-to book on skin diving, and it caught the attention of the producer.
Upon their meeting, Hughes asked Carrier about the book. Carrier answered, “I always do my books from the point of view that I don’t know a thing about it. I go in, write the book, and that way, I learn about it. If I don’t die, it’s a good book!”
Hughes roared with approval, patted Carrier on the back, said, “I like that guy,” and walked out.
Carrier was hired.
His first job: to find a way to project a movie underwater as well as rig the sound so the journalists in attendance could watch it with aqualungs while submerged.
Carrier built the rig in Silver Springs, Fla., and 200 journalists attended as well as stars Jane Russell, Richard Egan, and Jayne Mansfield. The premiere was bigger than the movie, receiving hundreds of press clippings.
“That started me off in the movie business. I got hired in the publicity department of RKO, and they were shooting movies all over New York,” Carrier said.
Behind the Camera
Once in the publicity department, Carrier went to movie sets and carefully observed how movies were made. “Whoever you are standing next to on your first experience [on set], if you are really interested in it, that is the one you are going to be,” Carrier said. He stood next to the cameraman and paid careful attention to the director.
After a while he became immersed in the independent film business and decided to make a movie on his own. Carrier studied a year’s worth of newsreels for his plot and found stories for his characters that revolved around the violence between the Puerto Ricans and the African Americans in New York City at the time.
[related-right]He bought a used camera, hired a group of theater actors, and shot the film in a week on 35mm film. He manually cut the film to edit his movie in his house including mixing the audio—long before the days of Macbook Pros. His film, “Strangers in the City,” was released in 1962.
Today Carrier is back to making movies, and this time, the subject matter is a little closer to home. He took 12 hours of video on a recent trip overseas and is working on a project to pay tribute to the concentration camp liberators.
Carrier is digging up distant memories of the awful things he saw in Buchenwald over 65 years ago, a process that has not always been easy for him.
He takes it in perspective, however, going back to something his Cherokee grandmother taught him decades ago, “Live with it, embrace it, and give it a big hug.”
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