A Rhode Island filmmaker’s tribute to the Good War

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG|Providence Phoenix

Amid the moral ambiguity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the handwringing over weapons of mass destruction, drone attacks, and the rights of detainees — there is something startling about the raw patriotism of the documentary Navy Heroes of Normandy.

Heroes, produced by Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray, tells the story of the Navy’s often underappreciated role in D-Day and the recent erection of a memorial to American sailors on French soil.

The documentary, which recently picked up New England Emmys for writing and videography, is unabashed in its hagiography; it is openly sentimental about a time when we were right and the enemy, easily indentified, was wrong.

“It was a clearly defined war,” says Gray, a former television sports reporter whose day job is spokesman for Treasurer Frank T. Caprio. “And we haven’t had one of those since.”

The film focuses on the stories of Navy men and Coast Guardsmen — several of them from Rhode Island — who participated in the largest amphibious assault in history. And it is their stories, all the more powerful coming from a generation of men trained to withhold, that are the most compelling part of the film.

Richard Fazzio of Woonsocket breaks as he speaks of the men who died at his side. “This is the first time I ever talked about it,” he says. “I hope it’s my last.”

Ernie Corvese of Smithfield has a look of terror in his downcast eyes as he talks of hopping out of a ship blown up only moments later, killing all of those onboard.

Vincent DiFalco of Cranston was a Coast Guardsman whose transport ship was destroyed as it approached Omaha Beach — killing a group of Army Rangers below deck. “I was in the water,” he says, “and I called for my mother.”

Retired Navy Captain Gregory Streeter, president of the Naval Order Foundation, also has a prominent role in the documentary. The war in the European theater, he explains, has long been cast as the Army’s war.

And so the Navy, lauded for its role in the Pacific, has never quite gotten its due for the effort at Normandy — transporting tens of thousands of soldiers onto shore and helping to break the well-fortified German troops with relentless shelling.

That may explain why there was no monument, until recently, to the Navy’s contributions on D-Day among the dozens of plaques and statues in Normandy.

The latter section of the film focuses on the efforts of Streeter and others to remedy the situation. After a half-million dollar fundraising campaign, we learn, Alabama sculptor Stephen Spears designed a statue of three figures: a commander pointing toward shore, a sailor carrying a shell, and another carrying a gun.

It is a handsome bit of bronze and granite, on a bluff above Utah Beach. And the unveiling in September 2008, captured on film, serves as a sort of catharsis for a prideful group of sailors at hand.

Heroes, which has aired on about 10 public television stations across the country to date and is available onwww.timgraymedia.com, is not the filmmaker’s first foray into World War II history.

D-Day+62 Years: Rhode Island Veterans Return to Normandy has aired on about 155 public television stations across the country under the title D-Day: The Price of Freedom.

A new project, We Who Are Alive and Remain, will tell the story of soldiers in the E Company (“Easy Company”) who did not make it into historian Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and the HBO series of the same title.

And Gray is also working on a documentary about leadership, to be narrated by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, that will focus on Major Richard Winters, who was the focus of Band of Brothers.

Gray says his interest in the D-Day assault came out of a childhood reach for the heroic. For the black and white.

“When I was about six years old, I picked up one of those World War II encyclopedias and was fascinated by the stories and the drama of the period,” he says. “When you’re a kid, these are your heroes.”

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