There are few greater joys in the field of journalism than being party to something historical. Whether you are fortunate enough to be present during a momentous event that will become iconic, or uncover something that will be remembered for generations to come, it is the ultimate goal of every true journalist to somehow leave an imprint on the sands of time.
Those moments come few and far between but in this field, history also has a way of sneaking up from the past and tapping you casually on the shoulder – surprising you with a story that is as significant as it is unbelievable.
When Private First Class Sanford M. Tanner walked through our doors this past Tuesday, he brought with him a piece of history – one that we will not soon forget and hope that you will enjoy learning about, as it is cataloged in this edition.
Tanner may have never come forward with his story had it not been for the work of an intern, Marcus Prezioso, who shared with us photographs he assumed were taken by his late great-grandfather during his deployment with the U.S. Army’s 663rd Engineer Topographical Company in World War II. We encouraged him to tell the story as best he could, and he produced something that many people have since praised.
That piece was about much more than simply sharing photographs found in a nondescript box many years after they were stored away. It was Marcus’s chance to tell his great-grandfather’s story, which not even his great-grandfather had done – as, like many veterans, he never spoke much about what was likely an incredibly personal and harrowing experience navigating an active war zone.
Tanner, turning 98 years old this Christmas, appeared out of nowhere simply to set the record straight. Without any hostility or negativity, he informed us that he had taken the photographs used in Prezioso’s story, not Marcus’s great-grandfather Edward Hays. However, the two soldiers served in the exact same company and saw the exact same things as one another.
This incredible coincidence is of real historical significance. There are a dwindling number of World War II veterans left in the country, and even fewer who are able to effectively communicate what they saw and experienced. Tanner, nearly 100 years old, could pinpoint exact dates and locations of what he saw during the war, including the previously-unidentified concentration camp featured in the story run in August by Prezioso and again in this edition.
Tanner brought with him two huge albums of photos. They catalog what the war was like from someone who was there, first-hand, in a unit of the Army that was oftentimes behind enemy lines and witnessing the brunt of the brutality, although his company never directly engaged with the German army.
The photos Tanner took of the unthinkable atrocities brought upon by the Nazi Party – emaciated corpses left naked and near skeletonized, even small infants lain out unceremoniously and perished – are a ghastly reminder of the outer reaches of our ability for cruelty to one another. They are hard to look at, but essential to see, as we must never forget the dangerous possibilities that emerge when we separate our fellow humans into divisive sects of subjective worth or worthlessness.
Storytellers like Tanner will not be around forever, unfortunately. Their memories will be immortalized in books, memoirs and documentaries, but their life stories will be relegated to second-hand telling, as Marcus was forced to do with his great-grandfather’s story.
Such reality makes it possible for honest mistakes to occur, as in Marcus’s story where he (understandably) assumed that his great-grandfather had taken the photos he found in a photo album; including an envelope that contained his own copy of the concentration camp photos with an inscription written from his great-grandmother insinuating that he had taken the pictures as well.
This is why it is so essential to sit down with our aging veterans. They have stories of immense importance to tell. These stories reveal war to be nothing to glorify. War is brutal, unforgiving, chaotic, often boring and something we should never rally in support of blindly. As this amazing series of events has shown, pictures are worth a thousand words, but sometimes they don’t tell the whole story either.