Eight years ago, Paolo Cascio began searching for the final survivors who were aboard the USS Arizona during Pearl Harbor to say thank you and honor their heroism through his art, which will be commemorated in the 2021 coffee table book, A Tribute To Valor.
The quest marked the beginning of a coast-to-coast journey that would last nearly a decade, inspiring the award-winning filmmaker and photographer to capture nearly 30,000 images of the people who fought for the United States during World War II along the way.
The gratitude he feels for the veterans’ profound sacrifice is evident as he tears up while describing his encounter with 98-year-old Navy pilot Lou Conter, who was “shot down twice and got back in a plane and went back at it.”
“They’re called the greatest generation for a reason: they just don’t make guys like this anymore,” he says. “Other generations may complain about certain things, but God forbid a real problem would come along in their lives.”
A Tribute to Valor is scheduled to be published in 2021. It will include historical context from Daniel Martinez, the chief historian at Pearl Harbor, and a forward by Tim Grey, award-winning documentary filmmaker and Chairmen of WWII foundation.
The web hosting site SmugMug filmed Cascio’s efforts to complete the book for eight days in 2016 and created the following video, which will launch tomorrow’s December 7 Ceremony at Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois.
A TRIBUTE TO VALOR
This weekend, Cascio will complete the final tasks required to tell the story. He will photograph Conter during a ceremony commemorating the 78th anniversary of Pearl Harbor at the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Located at the site of the attack, the Memorial is a deck-like structure suspended over the USS Arizona by four concrete pillars. It contains maximum windows that allow for visitors to look directly into the ship.
A museum with a cinema that plays a documentary about Pearl Harbor leads the way into the Memorial.
Cascio will also photograph the private memorial service of seaman Lauren Bruner, who passed on September 10th and will be commemorated during the final interment in Pearl Harbor history.
Historic rituals mark the Pearl Harbor internment ceremony. Among them are the flag-folding presentation and a diver who swims with the urn very slowly to the second turret of the partially submerged USS Arizona before gradually disappearing under water.
“I think there are about 42 urns down there right now,” says Cascio. “When they swim it out, they fire off three rounds in salute to their fellow seamen.”
Giving and respectful
Conter is one of six USS Arizona sailors who pulled themselves out of harms way by grabbing a rescue line thrown to them by fellow sailor Joe George during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
While photographing him with two of the others — Ken Potts (99), and Donald G. Stratton (97) — Cascio encountered a helpful and friendly attitude that is shared by all the veterans he has met.
“They are very reserved but also very giving and respectful,” he explains. “Despite the fact that they were in their mid-to-late 90s, they never denied a picture to anyone who asked.”
Over the course of his search for A Tribute To Valor, he was happy to learn that the characteristic appears to span generations.
“I sent a Facebook message to Donald E Stratton’s granddaughter, Nikki Stratton, and she put me in touch with her father, Randy, who was organizing the 75th anniversary for all of the survivors and their families and he invited me to be there,” he says. “I also drove to Little Rock just to take a photo of Joe’s daughter, Jo Anne George, putting the Bronze Star on her father’s headstone.”
“I was working on a movie in Atlanta in 2011 called The Watch with Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn when I noticed an anniversary for a Pearl Harbor ceremony on December 6,” Cascio recalls. “I drove out only to find out that the event had been cancelled. So I called the VFW and asked to be connected to the gentleman because I wanted to take his photo and say thank you. No one got back to me, so I began my search for survivors.”
Cascio may have returned with an empty camera, but he was full of motivation. When he saw a man in a diner wearing a USS Indianapolis cap while on a job in Boulder the following year, he made the same request.
The man was Paul Murphy. He had been among the Indianapolis survivors who had floated for three days in the Pacific and endured shark attacks while waiting to be rescued. He welcomed Cascio into his home the following day with “this big smile on his face.
“Just a really easygoing, jovial guy,” recalls Cascio.
But that changed dramatically when it was time for the photograph.
“He turned and dropped his gaze and I saw this face and emotion and I felt lightning go through my body,” Cascio continues. “I took one photo and said thank you. He said, ‘yeah I was just thinking that I never want to drink saltwater again in my life.’”
The experience reminded Cascio of a moment years ago when he discovered “the power and emotion that can be captured by an image.”
“I did a photograph of my father when I was learning how to use strobe lights and I dragged him off the couch while he was watching a Bulls game,” he says. “He lowered his gaze, and that’s when I captured the most beautiful shot of my father and realized that, when he’s gone, this would be the picture that he would be remembered by.”
Cascio feels that the image contains the stuff that makes great photography.
“Ninety-nine percent of all photographs are about three things: lighting, color, and a gesture, and the gesture tells the story” he says. “When I shot a photo of my dad, all three elements were there.”
A skillful sailor
Cascio won his first photo award for an image of Muddy Waters that he shot during a concert at Harper College when he was 18 years old. He earned his first film credit as 2nd Camera Assistant on Planes Trains & Automobiles and proceeded to work on shows like Brewster Place and Vampire Diaries as well as music videos for Elton John, George Straight, the Doobie Brothers, and George Michael.
Now, Cascio is fully committed to A Tribute to Valor, which he describes as a passion project been funded entirely by himself and the generous donations of his personal friends, colleagues, and other veterans.
He has declined a lot of high-profile jobs while completing the book, but that’s nothing new. Cascio dedicated himself to documentary and portraiture years ago, even if he’s had to forego glamorous work to do it.
The decision hasn’t always served the bests interest of his finances. After turning down work on three big budget films that, among other things, contained too much misogyny and violence for his taste, he found himself living out of a car for two months.
A year later, he won the emerging cinematographer award for his work on Almost Perfect, a film about a special needs student who proves his innocence after being accused of cheating.
“I live by my father’s advice,” he says. “A calm sea never made a skillful sailor.’”