Newly Unearthed Film Depicts World War II in Living Color


Bright red pools of blood stain the deck of a landing craft evacuating soldiers wounded on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

In a second movie segment, yellow tracer rounds fly through blue sky over Europe, hitting a German plane that spins out of control and crashes into a green field.

And in another clip, Dutch children wave tiny orange flags in a show of patriotism as Allies liberate Amsterdam from the Nazis.

These rare color images, overlooked for more than 50 years, bring World War II to life.

Hollywood has endlessly depicted the war, with Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” the latest effort. But the newly unearthed films are not fiction. They were shot by military cameramen, and historians believe the impact of the 150 hours of real-life footage will last longer than that of any matinee fare or familiar wartime newsreels in black and white.


“This will take World War II out of the Civil War era and remind people and forcibly hit people that this happened only yesterday,” said Stephen Ambrose, author of the best-selling book “D-Day” and founder of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.

Melvyn Paisley and Lars Andersen, who collect the films, plan to donate copies this fall to the museum, which is scheduled to open in 2000. Some clips will be on display for museum-goers, while other footage will be archived for researchers and documentary filmmakers.

Emotional Viewings

For the few veterans and their relatives who have seen some of the films at veterans’ gatherings, it has been an emotional experience.

Kathleen Saunders cried at a reunion of the 362nd Fighter Group in Seattle last year when she saw a clip showing her father, then in his mid-20s, in the cockpit of a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter.

Lt. Col. Richard Cline had died in a plane crash after the war, when his daughter was only 13 months old. Before the reunion, she had never seen a moving picture of him.

In the clip, lasting only several seconds, Cline puts on his flight helmet and smiles for the camera before taking off to strafe enemy tanks and troops. After seeing it, Saunders realized that her 20-year-old son’s smile is the same as her father’s.

Saunders, of Lakeland, Fla., called the fliers’ images “a window into their daily lives. It is a very brief thing, but for us it is an incredible moment in time.”

Much of the film was shot by professional filmmakers who volunteered or were drafted into the armed services. Some worked for John Ford, the legendary Hollywood director. Other footage was shot by military cameramen from Canada, Germany, Japan and the former Soviet Union.

Paisley, a World War II fighter pilot and former assistant secretary of the Navy who lives in McLean, Va., got involved in the search for the movies in 1996.

At a reunion of P-47 pilots, he met Lars Andersen, an amateur military historian who has been collecting color World War II movies since the mid-1980s.

Andersen was there to show a rare film he unearthed of P-47s in action. Paisley saw footage of himself receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold in Luxembourg in 1945.

The two teamed up and began a search that has led them to dusty government archive vaults in Washington, D.C., and across Europe.

Andersen and Paisley made copies of government film and acquired other footage from private sources. Although much of what they obtained is available to the public, few have ever searched for it. Before Andersen and Paisley started the collection, only five hours of color World War II film was known to exist.

“The idea is to gather it from all the sources we can all over the world. If it’s preserved properly, the film will last forever,” said Andersen, an industrial salesman from Southampton, N.Y.

Paisley thinks there may be another 150 hours of color film still to be found.

What the two have found so far covers a wide spectrum of wartime scenes.

There are shots of French peasants cutting hay by hand in fields as Allied artillery less than 100 feet away fires at German positions. There is film of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini visiting the Axis’ Eastern Front in the former Soviet Union. Footage taken during V-E Day in Paris shows jubilant residents waving American and British flags.

Many American cameramen who made World War II films in color and black and white were assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. They went on covert assignments carrying small movie cameras, sometimes behind enemy lines.

George Hjorth, now 76, joined John Ford’s military movie making crew just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Three days before D-Day, Hjorth (pronounced Yorth) parachuted into German-occupied Normandy. He was met by members of the French resistance, who hid him until the night before the invasion.

Hjorth’s assignment: to film the invasion from the other side.

Alone at Omaha Beach

In the predawn darkness before the invasion, Hjorth was escorted to Omaha Beach and left alone in a clump of bushes and rocks.

Outposts filled with German soldiers were behind him. He faced the shore where American soldiers would wade in from their landing barges.

At dawn, Hjorth saw thousands of ships gathered in the sea, and he started filming. A massive bombardment began as troops started coming to shore.

Weighed down by guns and gear, some soldiers drowned in water up to their necks. Others were cut down by German bullets. Some Americans died by friendly fire from Allied ships trying to hit the Germans.

Hjorth kept filming. He saw 300 to 400 soldiers die.

“I was shooting whatever I could see,” said Hjorth, now living in Cypress, Calif. “My buddies were shooting toward the shore and I was on the shore. It was the worst hour and a half of destruction I have ever seen.”

After running out of film, Hjorth ran 20 yards to the water and the American troops, hoping he wouldn’t get shot.

“I had a .38-caliber pistol and nothing else and I ran toward them and everybody ignored me,” Hjorth said. “Then I was up to my hips in water, trying to get onto a barge before it backed away.”

Hjorth saw his film developed but has no idea what happened to it. Nor does he want to see D-Day a second time. “I’m not thrilled to look at something that horrible,” he said.

But Paisley now knows about the footage. And he wants to find it.