A GI writes poetry and a filmmaker listens

Brenda Hughes
Special to The Black Mountain News

(Editor’s note: The writer is a documentary filmmaker who grew up in the Swannanoa Valley.)

If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have regrets – things we would do differently if we could. One of mine is that while growing up in the Swannanoa Valley, I paid no attention to the World War II veterans all around me.

My uncle served on the USS Hornet in the Pacific, and it impacted him the rest of his life; yet, I never even tried to talk with him about it. After all, my life at the time was all about “now,” and not “then.” How I wish I could have one conversation with him about serving on the deck of that aircraft carrier.

Today, having produced three World War II documentaries, all broadcast on public television nationwide, I am grateful to have made up for lost time. To have had the opportunity to “sit at the knee” of some of those remarkable men and women who humbly saved the world, then came home and got on with their lives. Who loved their country and marched off to the unknown to fight an evil force. The world was different then – many had no idea where Pearl Harbor was. Yet, they lined up to fight for freedom.

My latest project offers a different perspective – a reflection on life from someone who has lived through so much. It’s a book entitled “Reflections of a World War II veteran: Poems About War and Life.” It’s written by a 95-year-old WWII veteran from Canton, Paul Willis.

I met Paul during production of one of my documentaries, “Thank You, Eddie Hart,” and immediately he reminded me of the men and women in the Swannanoa Valley I grew up with – hard workers who try to do the right thing, living simple but honorable lives.

Paul writes about war and its aftermath, but he’s also concerned about the future and the world around us. Incredibly, in spite of all he’s been through – of watching men in his platoon die on the battlefield, and of losing his two sons, a grandson and his wife of over 70 years – he is hopeful for the future. He feels good will prevail.

We learn so much from history; likewise, we learn so much wisdom and knowledge from those who have lived before us. So, if you have the opportunity, I encourage you to sit down and listen to a veteran.

While many people tell me that old soldiers refuse to discuss their experiences, I would say try again. And if you succeed, I hope you learn something, like I have.

Paul Willis will read from his book at 3 p.m. Feb. 27 at Blue Ridge Book Store in Waynesville. The book is available there and at