Keeping Vets' Memories Alive On Film

andrews -- WWII vet
CBS
More than 16 million Americans served in World War II, but only around three million are still alive. The VA estimated this year they are dying at the rate of almost one thousand a day. CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews met one filmmaker determined to make their memory last.

Larry Cappetto isn't just looking for a few good men, he's looking for every WWII veteran he can find. He is taping their recollections of war and weaving them into documentaries, Andrews reports.

"Were you in the Battle of the Bulge?" Cappetto asks another man.

He's made five films so far, all of them on WWII, and in all of them the voices of the vets themselves tell the story.

Some of what they had to say:

"We had a job to do and we were doing it. By God, we went out there and did it."

"Death was there on the beach. You could smell it."

"There was only three of us left in the entire company of 250 men."

Many of the vets are re-living a personal hell for the first time.

One veteran's twin brother died beside him.

"I should have died with him. I wanted to die. I really did," he said. "'Cause my life was ruined. Half of me died when he died."

"When people watch my films, I want them to feel like me, on the other end of that camera," Cappetto said. "Getting that personal side of war, you know, going down those rope ladders, landing on those beaches."

Cappetto's search for these surviving veterans has been relentless. In four years he's interviewed almost 400 combat veterans, assembling one of the largest oral histories ever recorded of Americans at war.

One of the most compelling of those stories came from D-day veteran Lewis Johnson -- a Navy vet who manned a machine gun as he landed on Omaha Beach.

"There were hundreds of thousands of bullets," Johnson said. "It was the worst day of my life."

Johnson and Cappetto are now a team, sharing these stories at schools. Cappetto, showing students the taped history, and Johnson being history.

What does the team think they teach students that they need to know?

"The carnage, the killing, the maiming, the blood. You don't get that in the history books," TK said.

After four years in Iraq, America has lost 3,300 hundred lives. But on D-day, there were 3,000 killed within hours. For the students, the enormity of that sinks in.

"It's like you re-live the even with them," a student named Lamisa said.

He classmate Megan added: "To know that so many men gave up their life just for us, it gave me a deeper appreciation."

As he tapes these interviews, Cappetto asks these veterans to salute. And they don't hesitate. He believes it's more than patriotism.

"When I see those veterans salute, that's what I feel like," he said. "I feel like they are saying goodbye. They have done their service to our country."

On Memorial Day we honor those who have died for America. But Cappetto isn't waiting for death. Interview by interview, he's honoring the veterans now.



Cappetto will release his next documentary -- on the Vietnam War -- this coming fourth of July. And he's already interviewing veterans of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. You can reach Cappetto on his Web site.