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SD photographer documents WWII vets on their battlefields

John Riedy

Ask San Diego photographer John Riedy about his wedding and portrait work and he’s happy to talk. But ask him about his photography trips where veterans return to their World War II battlegrounds, and the stories don’t stop flowing.

“One of the guys I’ve gone with was 16 [years old] on D-Day,” Riedy said, showing a photograph he took of the veteran when he returned to Normandy for the first time in 65 years. “He was 15 when he signed up, 16 when he jumped as a paratrooper in behind enemy lines — it’s just unbelievable.”

Looking at the pictures, Riedy is able to name most of his subjects, and can recite all their stories. There’s the veteran who took off in a bomber from England, photographed at the runway that he flew from on D-Day.

There’s the veteran on Utah Beach at Normandy, standing under the dune he crouched behind until his commanding officer said, “Get your ass over that; the Germans are right there.” There’s the radio operator in Pearl Harbor, and there’s the veteran who was part of the invasion at Okinawa.

Then there’s Capt. Mal Walker.

“He was in a hedgerow separating the fields, and they had to go from hedgerow to hedgerow and take them,” Riedy said. “He and his company of about 40 people, they came into this one hedgerow and the battle that went on — only he and his runner survived out of 40.

“And he was shot in both arms, both legs, and then he was finally shot in the chest, and he had a Bible there in his pocket and his Bible had a metal plate in it and it stopped the bullet that would have killed him. He went on to, during the occupation, become mayor of Bremen, Germany, and he wrote two biographies of Hitler, he played with the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra — the guy went on to this unbelievable life. Most of these guys went on to incredible lives. They survived this and they made the most of their lives — I’ve learned a lot from them in that sense.”

That’s part of the goal of The Greatest Generations Foundation, the nonprofit that runs the trips to World War II battlefields free for the veterans who fought there. Not only do they serve to bring closure to the vets and give them a chance to interact with their comrades, but they also document their stories and experiences. Veterans of these legendary battles are now in their late 80s and early 90s.

“One of the main tenets was connecting generations,” Riedy said. “So that the next generation doesn’t forget what these guys did for us — because when they’re gone, what’s left? Who’s going to remember?”

Timothy Davis, an Australian who Riedy said was appalled by the way Americans treated their veterans compared to what he was used to, started the Denver-based foundation about 12 years ago, raising money on his own to take one or two veterans back where they fought.

Riedy became involved in 2009 through a mutual friend who recommended that he photograph the trips, and he has gone on 15 trips to nearly as many locations: Normandy, Holland, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hiroshima, Guam, Tinian, Saipan, England, Germany, Paris, Australia and Hawaii.

There are typically from six to 12 veterans on each trip, though a group of 30 is leaving for Normandy next week to observe the 70th anniversary of D-Day; former NFL linebacker Donnie Edwards and former MLB pitcher Jason Hirsh will travel with the group.

College students and Air Force Academy cadets used to travel with the veterans, but the Foundation changed the program after finding that the veterans were more open without the students.

“When we take the students, I think they [the veterans] felt like when they passed along their story they had to tell it in a little bit more of an educational way, though some still definitely got emotional,” Riedy said.

“Whereas, when it’s just the veterans together, they’re telling their story with a brother in arms. When you can sit on the bus right behind them and hear them talking to each other, it’s different than when they’re talking to a student. They’re talking about the real stuff and they are, I think, a little bit more open to being emotional in front of each other.”

The Foundation still ensures that the stories are documented with Riedy’s photography and a news video crew. After this trip to Normandy and one later this year to the Battle of the Bulge site in Belgium, France and Luxembourg — the only major battlefield he hasn’t visited with the group — Riedy said he hopes to make a book of the veterans’ portraits and stories to keep their tales alive. On this 70th anniversary trip, the group will be sprinkling ashes, Riedy said, including those of Walker, who died in October at age 93.

What will happen when there are no more living World War II vets?

“Part of the reason we call it Greatest Generations Foundation is we do plan to move on to the next generation,” Riedy said. “I don’t know if Korea’s going to happen — that might be logistically too hard — but Vietnam will almost certainly be next. And that’s going to be a different thing, because people don’t feel the same about Vietnam as they did about World War II.”

Aside from the deep connection that Riedy has developed with the veterans over the years, he said he enjoys discovering the similarities and differences between photographing these trips and his John Riedy Photography mainstays of portraits and weddings.

“In a portrait, you're trying to find a personal connection to the subject and use that to reveal who they are in the photograph,” he said. “With the vets, it's different. I realized that my best portraits of the veterans are not ones where I'm connecting with them, but rather when they are allowed to connect with their location. That’s what takes them back 70 years, and then my job is to reveal that connection, not my connection to them. “

He does have to be cautious to not overstep bounds, however, just as at weddings.

“One of the things that’s hard on these trips is knowing when to keep shooting and when to step back and let them have their moment, because there are some really emotional moments. … But the same thing is true for weddings too, so it’s one of the skills that’s translating from shooting weddings to this.”

Riedy, son of Mark Riedy, executive director of the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego, started in the industry as a camera and Steadicam operator for TV shows, movies and commercials in Los Angeles, before he and his wife, a voice-over actress who’s announced the Emmys and Grammys, decided to move to San Diego to be closer to family and most of his photography clients.

Riedy has done the photography work for The Greatest Generations Foundation trips pro bono, and said it’s absolutely been worth it.

“The second I got over there with those guys, I knew this was a special thing, a special opportunity I had that very few photographers would ever have,” he said. “And every program I did I just got more and more connected to these men, and felt more dedicated to telling their story and making sure that we remember.”

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