Associate Professor Joel Beeson’s documentary, “Fighting on Two Fronts: The Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans,” reveals the stories of four “Greatest Generation” veterans who were forced to fight two battles – against an enemy on foreign soil and racism at home.
“For many of the veterans it was their first time to tell someone exactly what they went through,” said Beeson. “It got pretty emotional for them – and for me. I remember having to turn the camera off at times to just cry with them.”
It also was one of the first attempts to document stories of the African American experience during World War II on film. By 1945, more than 1.2 million African American men were serving in Europe and the Pacific, yet little has been recorded to document their contribution to the war.
Beeson’s film won acclaim from the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans’ Braintrust. In September 2007, he received the Braintrust Award during the 19th Annual Veterans’ Braintrust Awards Reception. Established by Gen. Colin Powell in 1990, the Braintrust Award recognizes people who have provided exemplary national and community service on behalf of African American veterans.
Beeson got the idea for the documentary through his work as the director of the West Virginia Veterans History Project, created to help document stories of the state’s veterans.
The film became a reality in 2004, when the West Virginia Humanities Council funded the project, awarding Beeson a media grant to create a documentary about West Virginia’s African American veterans.
The hour-long documentary premiered on Veterans Day 2007 on West Virginia Public Television.
The film features the stories of Marcus Cranford of Charles Town, W.Va., who was part of a Navy Seabee Battalion of soldiers deployed at Iwo Jima to unload supplies on the beach; Madelean McIver of Charles Town, one of only 3,000 African Americans in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during the war; John Watson of Bluefield, W.Va., a crew chief with the Tuskegee Airmen; and Hughie Mills now of Las Vegas, Nev., who volunteered for the 761st Tank Battalion after the Battle of the Bulge.
For the editing process, Beeson turned to renowned filmmaker Jacob Young, currently a producer at WVU Television Productions. Young has produced award-winning documentaries, including “The Dancing Outlaw” and “American Junkumentary.”
“We did in just a couple of weeks, what would normally take many months to accomplish,” said Young. “The documentary is set in a way that it takes the audience along for the journey, making them feel like they aren’t watching a documentary.”
Beeson added that he wanted the veterans to tell their stories in their own words.
“There is no narrator saying African Americans did this, or Americans did that,” said Beeson. “These are men and women who have kept this information, a lot of times to themselves, for 65 years. Many of them are haunted and have had nightmares about this stuff. I thought it was only right and fair to let them tell their own stories.”