Eight questions for Arizona filmmaker Thomas Perry
"These are the stories of true American heroes and we felt their stories needed to be told."
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
We recently caught up with documentary filmmaker Thomas Perry, to talk about his latest work. Thomas has many year experience making military documentary films, and he has a particular interest in World War I. He found rich sources of untold World War I stories in his own home state of Arizona, and decided to showcase them. The stories were so plentiful, that Thomas also created a companion blog to help tell them all!
You have a special project that focuses on Arizona's contribution to the effort in World War I. Tell us about your documentary.
The ARIZONA HEROES OF WORLD WAR 1 is one hour documentary film highlighting the dramatic and inspiring story of Arizona’s brave men and women who lived, fought, suffered and died serving their country during World War 1.
The ARIZONA HEROES OF WW1 Project was designed as an educational and promotional tool to advance important American Legion veteran messages while also celebrating and commemorating the 100th Anniversary of The American Legion and the 100th Anniversary of America’s victory in World War 1.
ARIZONA HEROES OF WW1 is sponsored by The American Legion Department of Arizona and officially endorsed by The United States World War 1 Centennial Commission.
How did the idea come about?
We are military documentarians, having created a variety of military programs throughout our professional careers with World War 2 being a consistent theme. Many of these programs, including HOLLYWOOD GOES TO WAR and HITLER TO HIROSHIMA were broadcast on national cable networks and also nationally televised. Hundreds of thousands units have also been distributed internationally on VHS, DVD and Streaming.
With the 100th anniversary of World War 1 approaching, we wanted to create something that would honor and remember the great contributions and sacrifices made by my home state of Arizona. ARIZONA HEROES OF WW1 was it.
What is your attraction to this subject?
The era during which World War 1 took place is virtually unknown by most Americans and Arizonans. We wanted to explore that. When we began the research we really had no idea what we would find since Arizona had only been a state for a short time and had such a small population. In a short period of time we were very happy to find that the people of Arizona had contributed a great deal to support the U.S. victory.
Tell us about the research process.
The first thing we did was to develop a list of Arizona airman, seamen, soldiers, nurses and volunteers who did verifiably heroic things during the war. Untold hours were spent online, at libraries and on the telephone searching and tracking down every lead and expanding the story with each new and interesting fact.
Where did you find your imagery?
We had established a reputation as military documentary filmmakers and had contacts at the National Archives in Washington D.C. At our request they supplied us with over 150 hours of digitized WW1 era footage, which we used as source material to tell the stories.
We made a decision from the start not to make a slide show of still images. We are filmmakers and wanted to tell our story with film. That said, photos were still necessary for character identification and a few spots in the story for which no film existed. Finding personal photos of our heroes took a great deal of time and effort. We had to depend on personal archives, small museums, old books and even 100- year-old newspapers to find the few photos we did use.
How did you approach telling this story?
We are storytellers and so each subject became a stand-alone story. These stand- alone stories were then woven together into the one-hour documentary. We were very interested in telling the stories of forgotten Arizona heroes and the never before told stories of Arizonan’s contributions to the war efforts.
Individual military men and women, chaplains, volunteer groups, charitable organizations, and even politicians all became the focus of stories. We expanded the film to cover not just the stories of white men but also the stories of Native Americans, and Mexican Americans.
We also included the compelling stories of modern women who helped break stereotypes by serving in the military years before women had the right to vote. These are the stories of true American heroes and we felt their stories needed to be told.
What did you learn about these people through making this movie?
We were surprised every day. By sifting through military records to identify combat awarded medal recipients, we found two Medal of Honor recipients, 27 Distinguished Service Cross recipients and many, many more individuals with combat recognition.
We also discovered:
• Arizonan’s were very generous – Arizona was among the top 5 states in per capita Liberty Bond purchases.
• Arizona was also #1 in meeting their draft quotas having fulfilled or over fulfilled it’s quota during every draft cycle.
• Arizona also led the nation in having the least number of draftees rejected for flat feet - only 20 men were rejected from the draft for flat feet (attributed to the popular wearing of cowboy boots).
• The USS Arizona was christened, launched and participated as an escort for President Wilson’s trip to France for the peace talks.
• Arizona’s long fiber Pima Cotton was used in the production of airplane tires and fabric used to cover airplanes.
• Arizona mines supplied much of the copper used in support of the war effort.
What stories resonated with you, and stuck out in your mind?
All of them, really, but there are a few special ones:
• The story of Medal of Honor recipient Cpl. John Henry Pruitt sticks out. As a member of the original Devil Dogs, he is one of the Marine Corp most decorated veterans, but a hero lost in time.
• The fascinating story of Native American Pvt. Mathew B. Juan, the first Native American from Arizona to die in combat. Pvt. Juan survived a harrowing U-Boat attack off the coast of Ireland before ever seeing the battlefields of France.
• John C. Greenway was already an Arizona Hero, having served with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the 1898 Spanish American War. At the Battle of Cambrai, near Verdun, Col. Greenway led his troops out of the trenches, across the open battlefield and into a hail of bullets, viciously attacking the heavily fortified German trenches. Col. Greenway was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and is one of the founding fathers of the American Legion.
• Lt. Ralph O’Neil was born in Mexico and raised in Nogales, Arizona. Incredibly, this poor kid from the border became a combat Ace over the battlefields of France. Lt. O’Neil was one of only three men to receive three separate Distinguished Service Crosses in World War 1, all three for extraordinary heroism in action and courage under fire.