Filmmaker Tim Gray’s Mission: To tell their war stories

By Mark Patinkin
Journal Columnist:

I am outside a Woonsocket triple-decker with World War II filmmaker Tim Gray about to do what he’s been doing for a decade: Seek out the war’s last soldiers.

Before they’re gone.

In this case, it’s Richard Fazzio, 91, and among the first to land on D-Day.

Seventy-two years ago.

Fazzio greets us and we sit in his tiny living room.

“None of them are in mansions,” says Gray of the war’s disappearing veterans. “They’re average, humble people.”

Tim Gray, who is 49 and from Kingston, knows about men like Fazzio. He’s interviewed hundreds while making 17 World War II documentaries, which air nationally on PBS stations, narrated by such actors as Dan Aykroyd and Tom Selleck.

I tell Fazzio he’s a hero but he shakes his head and his eyes fill.

“The heroes are all buried,” he says. “We’re survivors.”

Fazzio never talked about the war until Tim Gray found him for his 2006 documentary, “D-Day: The Price of Freedom.”

That’s Gray’s mission — chronicling the history of World War II’s front lines while there’s still time.

Gray was a Channel 10 sportscaster when, on a trip to France, he walked through the famous Normandy cemetery and wondered how many Rhode Islanders were buried there.

Back home, he learned the answer — 99. Gray tracked down 15 veterans, picked five and with a lead grant from Bank of America, brought them to France and made his first film.

It changed his life. Gray left TV, started “The World War II Foundation” and launched a new career.

He’s learned more than history.

“I’ve learned from them to be humble,” he says of the soldiers. “To work harder like they did. To realize they’re not a bent-over 95-year-old — they saved the world.”

Here in the Woonsocket triple-decker, I ask Richard Fazzio what it was like to hit Omaha Beach in 1944.

He was coxswain — the driver — of one of the first 100 landing boats to plow ashore. As soon as he dropped the gate, most of the 30 soldiers aboard were hit by gunfire, some in the face.

He was 18.

“I thought of my mother,” he says choking up. “How the other mothers felt about all those kids who got killed.”

Then a bullet hit Fazzio under his right arm and out his back. His job was to motor back to a big troop transport to fetch more soldiers, but by then he was almost gone from loss of blood and was helped aboard.

Gray had to talk Fazzio into returning to Normandy, but once back, he was amazed to see folks riding horses and enjoying a waterfront he remembered quite differently.

“That’s a beautiful beach over there now,” he tells me. “Gorgeous.”

“That’s what he fought for,” Gray says. “Their freedom — and ours.”

Tim Gray liked his time as sportscaster but it’s not a surprise he left for this.

Even as a kid, he preferred World War II books to Dr. Seuss. While in New Orleans covering the Patriots in the 2002 Super Bowl, he left the frenzy to spend a half day at what was then the national D-Day Museum.

Gray also wanted to do more serious writing, and his style is showcased in his latest film, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” which has a sneak peak this Sunday at 1 p.m. at Veterans Auditorium in Providence — tickets are $10, with veterans free. It’ll officially debut at Pearl Harbor in December on the attack’s 75th anniversary.

In it, Tom Selleck narrates words like these written by Gray:

“The faces of those 1,177 who died aboard the battleship remain frozen in time — youth preserved for eternity; sailors and Marines with their whole lives in front of them, gone in an instant.”

For all his films, Gray has worked with Jim Karpeichik, formerly of Channel 10, as videographer. Having had a World War II dad, Karpeichik was drawn to Gray’s focus on the common soldier — and also his passion for detail.

“It’s almost frustrating,” Karpeichik half-jokes. “Every time you think you’re done, there’s one more archival clip he wants to include. I don’t know if Tim has ever said something is good enough.”

I ask Gray if after 17 films, he’s burning out.

The opposite, he says, and tells me veterans he’s filmed have sometimes died before the documentary was finished. Of the 16 million who served in the war, 95 percent are gone.

“You feel the pressure,” says Gray, “to tell their stories before it’s too late.”

Fundraising, he says, is tough, but Gray is heartened by those who have donated over the years, including Steven Spielberg, Bill Belichick and an elderly woman in Ohio who sent four one-dollar bills.

Here in the triple-decker, I ask Richard Fazzio how he feels about Gray’s films.

He smiles. “I call him Ken Burns junior.”

To that, Gray says veterans like Fazzio keep him going.

“This old man right here,” says Gray, as Fazzio smiles.

Just being with him, Gray says, is an honor.

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