CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Professional photographer Jeff Rease is in a race against time.
For the last two years, he has traveled across the country asking questions and taking photos of members of the Greatest Generation who served during World War II.
Rease’s journey, as he calls it, is a daunting one. He’s attempting to capture as many stories of their sacrifice before it’s too late.
“It's history," he said. "It's living history.”
Sixteen million Americans served during the war. It’s estimated that there are fewer than 300,000 service members from that war that are still alive today.
“We can't reach all of them," Rease said. "I'm glad I can reach those who I am getting to.”
Recently, Rease made a stop in the Coastal Bend to record firsthand accounts of veterans like Bob Batterson, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii 80 years ago. Batterson recalled having a “grandstand view” of Japanese warplanes initiating the attack.
“We observed it for 15, 20 minutes. The (Japanese) planes came right by us,” Batterson said. “So we knew it was war.”
That attack would eventually thrust the United States into World War II.
Now, in their final years of life, personal eyewitness accounts from these aging heroes are becoming more difficult to find and record.
“Probably if I didn't (record them), their story wouldn't go much past their family," said Rease.
For him, his mission to preserve the sacrifices of these WWII veterans is personal.
“I didn't serve in the military," he said. "I'm not a veteran. I have respect and a love for veterans because of what they did."
Rease’s family is filled with members who did serve in the military. His father was an Army paratrooper during the Korean War. He lost two uncles in that same war. His brother and son are both Marines.
“I can do something to give back and thank the veterans who did so much for us,” said Rease, with a proud look on his face.
Rease doesn’t make a dime for his time and travel while capturing these important stories. He only takes donations through a Go Fund Me account. He even gives the portraits to the veterans for free. It’s his way of giving back to veterans, and our country.
And where do these living history stories from these WWII heroes wind up? They are all officially documented on his website. His project is appropriately titled “Portraits of Honor.” That’s where you will find numerous portraits and stories that provide personal context to what you would typically find in history books.
Jose Mendez served during the Battle of the Bulge. It was the last major German offensive, and a critical turning point in the war. It was also the bloodiest and largest single battle fought by the U.S. in WWII.
Mendez recalled the tragedies he witnessed.
“We saw a lot of things that are hard to explain,” said Mendez, who keeps numerous keepsakes including old war photos and documents inside an old briefcase he carries around.
A prophetic handwritten note among those items reads: “An old soldier never dies. He just fades away.”
Yet, thanks to those like Jeff Rease, our memories of those brave heroes, won't fade away too.