It’s another one of those stories that you would think came from the fanciful Hollywood writer: Paratroopers land behind enemy lines; enemy opens fire; paratroopers and enemy wounded are strewn about the village; two medics run out of an old church, drag the wounded from both sides into the church and save their lives.
As fanciful as it sounds, it is a true story.
Rhode Island filmmakers Jim Karpeichik and Tim Gray were in the small village of Angoville-au-Plain doing yet another documentary about the greatest generation’s memories of World War II when one of their guides brought them into the 12th century village church. Their guide looked down at one of the pews and said, “Ah, there it is, after all these years.”
When they asked the man what he was talking about, they were soon hearing a story that they almost instantly knew would have to be yet another story for them to tell. For the past seven years, Karpeichik and Gray have been making documentaries with an urgency that does not always attend filmmakers, which is the fact that the subjects of their films have been dying off. They have already made several highly acclaimed documentaries about the combat veterans of World War II and, as both men sadly acknowledge, some of the people they interviewed have passed on before they got to see the films.
After they entered that church in Angoville-au-Plain, they knew that one great story had led to another. As Karpeichik explained, documentary filmmakers often encounter new stories while attempting to capture a familiar one. So it was with “Eagles of Mercy.” They were in Normandy following up on stories they encounter while doing such past films as “D-Day: The Price of Freedom.”
“You meet people and you hear stories that you realize they are also worthy of being told,” said Karpeichik. “Once we heard that story in that church, we knew we would have to do this [‘Eagles of Mercy’] film.”
What their guide pointed out was a timeworn but still visibly bloodstained pew. He began to tell them about two American medics attached to the Airborne troops who dropped into the village on June 6, 1944, in the opening hours of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The troops were quickly engaged in some fierce fighting as the tiny hamlet changed hands several times with the ebb and flow of troops from both sides.
“These two medics would run out and bring the wounded troops on both sides inside the church to treat as the shooting outside started up again,” said Karpeichik. “It didn’t matter if you were a German or an American, they treated all the wounded.”
What came out of this even-handed treatment was the respect that both sides quickly developed for the two American medics, Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore of the 101st Airborne Division.
“The two medics had only one condition,” said Karpeichik. “If you wanted to come inside, you had to leave your weapons outside. That wasn’t a problem for most of them, but there was one German officer who gave them a hard time. He didn’t want to give up his gun but eventually he realized he had no choice: Give up the gun or die.”
Needless to say, Karpeichik and Gray knew that this was a story that had to become more widely known in America. If this is the first time you heard of this inspirational piece of history, rest assured that is not the fault of the people of Angoville-au-Plain and the French nation. There is a monument to the two medics in the village and the church itself has a stained-glass window depicting the landing of 101st Airborne in Normandy and another window dedicated to Wright and Moore.
Karpeichik and Gray have worked on eight films about World War II over the past seven years and, like the others, “Eagles of Mercy” required no make-believe plot inventions to be turned into a gripping story. Also, like the other films, it was a race against the clock to find people who have living memories of the events of World War II, which often deepen the suspense in the retelling.
“Actually, Moore and Wright told us about one American officer who had a gun concealed on himself in the church,” said Gray. “Can you imagine what would have happened if that German officer knew that? Can you imagine the mess that would have made?”
Gray and Karpeichik have scheduled the premiere of
“Eagles of Mercy” at the Showcase Cinema in Warwick at Division Street and Route 2 at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9.
Karpeichik said they knew their window of opportunity to actually get the two medics on film was closing and they very quickly got in touch with them.
“We did do interviews with them, one in Tampa and the other on the west coast,” said Karpeichik. “We hired a local crew for the west coast because, as usual, we were running out of time.”
Wright and Moore told the filmmakers about how the Germans left the church alone as the battles raged outside, coming and going as the fight raged. Intentionally or not, the church was shelled, but the American medics’ work went on. Wounded were placed on pews and now, 70 years later, the blood stains remain on the pews in that church, a gruesome but encouraging reminder that even under those remarkable circumstances, human decency was possible.
“They also told us about a 9-year-old boy they treated,” said Karpeichik. “He was just a kid who got caught up in the battle. They treated him and then sent him down the road to look for the rest of his family.”
“Eagles of Mercy” is “a testament to compassion, courage and most of all, humanity, during the opening moments of the fierce battle to liberate Europe,” according to Karpeichik and Gray.
Tim Gray, by the way, is a two-time New England Emmy Award winning producer and writer who used to do on-air sports for Channel 10 News. Tim launched Tim Gray Media, Inc. in 2005. His first film eventually aired on over 155 PBS affiliates around the country as “D-Day: The Price of Freedom” and won two Emmy Awards, one for outstanding documentary program writing.
Jim Karpeichik is the principal owner of Ocean State Video and has over 25 years of experience with video production, as a long-time chief cameraman and reporter for Channel 10 WJAR. His work has appeared on NBC Nightly News, Discovery Channel, PBS, CNN, History Channel, ESPN, TNT, Fox Sports Network, CBC, and numerous television stations across the country.
Karpeichik said “Eagles of Mercy” uses some local World War II re-enactors to lend an air of authenticity to the film and, just as Civil War re-enactors are sticklers for detail and authenticity, their World War II European counterparts are even more insistent on the real thing.
“These aren’t costumes that they had made for their re-enactments,” said Karpeichik. “These are the uniforms they wore. They get old American and German uniforms and use them. The authenticity is amazing.”
After the “Eagles of Mercy” premiere, Gray and Karpeichik will be back in the studio editing their film about the legendary B-17 bomber, “Damn Yankee,” the plane that Bruce Sundlun was flying over Belgium when some German fighters and anti-aircraft fire invited Sundlun and his crew to crash and die.
For people who only knew the former governor as a gruff and imperious executive, “Damn Yankee” will come as a revelation. This is the story of how Sundlun “made his bones,” as they say in gangland circles, and forever dismisses the notion that Sundlun was merely a privileged rich kid with a warped sense of entitlement. Here’s the short version:
Beginning in June 1943, Sundlun served as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in the England-based 384th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. His plane, “Damn Yankee,” was shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium in December of 1943. It was Sundlun’s 13th bombing mission.
After working with the French Resistance, he stole bicycles across France and escaped into Switzerland in May of 1944.
Before escaping, he was engaged with the Maquis in acts of sabotage near Belfort against the German Army. Later, he was recruited by Allen Dulles working out of the U.S. Embassy in Bern to re-enter France under the auspices of the Office of Strategic Services to act as a bombardment spotter for the Allied invasion of Marseilles in August 1944.
“We came across this guy in Belgium who has been picking up pieces of Sundlun’s plane for years,” said Karpeichik. “He knew Sundlun’s story and wondered about him. He collected the pieces and tagged them, like an archaeologist … It was this guy’s life mission to honor this bomber crew.”
Karpeichik said the same man was watching CNN one day and learned that Sundlun was alive and the governor of Rhode Island.
“He called the State House every day for two years and asked to speak to the governor,” said Karpeichik. “He used to stay awake after his second shift job [in Belgium] to call Rhode Island until he finally got through and talked with Sundlun.”
You can hear the rest of the story when “Damn Yankee” premieres.