It was the largest single massacre of American soldiers in World War II.
On Dec. 17, 1944, following a battle in Malmedy, Belgium, 134 unarmed American soldiers were captured, marched into a snow-covered field, and gunned down.
Some of the men survived by playing dead for hours in the freezing cold, and some ran as German soldiers were ordered to execute anyone still breathing. Miraculously, around 50 Americans escaped what has become known as the Malmedy Massacre.
Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray tracked down the few remaining survivors — and documented their emotionally wrenching memories — for his latest World War II film, “Survivors of Malmedy: December 1944.” The film, narrated by Jason Beghe of NBC’s “Chicago P.D.,” will premiere at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 5, at the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport.
Following the premiere, the film will air on PBS stations across the United States. All of the foundation’s films are donated to American Public Television for airing on PBS affiliates and networks in the United States and throughout the world. The films created by the World War II Foundation have been ranked continuously in the top five most requested films from PBS affiliates, and the foundation’s educational films are seen by millions of people every year.
“These guys saved the world and didn’t ask anything in return.” — Tim Gray, filmmaker
“It is a little-known story of the war, but it is a very important one,” Gray said. “What stood out was how random the killings were. One veteran talked about the man to his left being shot, and the man to his right, but he was not shot.”
With only a handful of World War II veterans still alive today, it is more important than ever that they have a chance to tell their stories of the war and that brutally cold night in Malmedy, Gray added.
This is the 20th documentary from Gray, founder of the nonprofit World War II Foundation and a University of Rhode Island journalism graduate who worked as a sportscaster at WJAR Channel 10 in Providence before turning his full attention to making movies. Gray said his decades of work as a journalist helped ease his transition into documentary filmmaking.
“Journalism kind of gave me the background,” Gray said. “Being in TV for 15 years you learn how to write. You learn a lot about putting together a story visually.”
While this helped Gray to grasp the format of documentary filmmaking, his understanding of the subject has been essential to his success. An interest in World War II has been ingrained in Gray since childhood. He remembers picking up an encyclopedia about the war and reading everything he could when he was just a boy.
“I’ve been fascinated by World War II since I was 6 years old,” Gray said. “I would just pick up a book and read it, or watch documentaries and films. When I got out of TV I wanted to apply what I really loved, which was reading about the personal stories of the people who served and survived the war and do documentary films on them.”
For the Malmedy documentary, Gray interviewed the survivors in their homes and traveled to the small Belgian town with a videographer, Jim Karpeichik, to film the massacre site, as well as the forests and towns where some of the veterans found refuge.
The veterans’ memories of that day are still as clear as the moment the shooting started.
“When the shooting began, everyone was falling down hollering ‘Mom! God!’ and I laid there … it was horrible,” one survivor says in the film.
“I think about Dec. 17, 1944 a lot,” said another veteran. “To this day, I think about it and can see it happening whenever I talk about it.”
Being able to meet the veterans in his 20 films, and travel to locations in the Pacific and Europe where the battles took place, is enormously rewarding for Gray. The familiarity he has with the battlefields and history allows him to connect with the veterans on a deeper level.
“Once you find out where they are and get a hold of them, they’re open to sharing their stories,” Gray said. “We focus on the personal stories … It’s the personal stories that people are astounded by.”
With approximately 800 World War II veterans dying each day, Gray is determined to preserve their memories and recognize their sacrifices before they are no longer here to share their stories. “These guys saved the world and didn’t ask anything in return,” Gray said. “I want future generations to know about them.”