Photographer Paolo Cascio Meets His Greatest Moment
Of the 22,000 photographs Paolo Cascio took in the week surrounding Dec. 7, he remembers one above all. He even calls it “The One.” He remembers who was there, what he saw, and what his camera captured. He cried as he took it.
And he cries honest tears every time as he thinks of it now. He was standing in Pearl Harbor’s shrine of heroes devoted to the sailors who died aboard the USS Arizona on that Sunday morning 75 years ago.
He was standing behind four of the five sailors—all in their 90s—who inched forward together while everyone else waited respectfully outside the chamber. They are the only ones left from the proud old battleship that died that day along with 1,177 shipmates. The only ones left in the entire world. They came to say goodbye to her and to each other.
This was the final salute, almost literally the last, on a day named for the ceremonial celebration of past heroism and tragedy.
Only Paolo Cascio shared the room and moment with them as their invited guest. “Nobody else; just us,” he said. They all were silent as they raised their eyes to the names engraved on the final roster. As the designated chronicler of the moment, Cascio was the keeper of the flame for them. The moment likely will never come again.
History passes in their wake.
They will be gone soon, though Barrington photographer and former Hollywood cinematographer Paolo Cascio will capture their day in what will soon become a massive photographic book. That homage is in production, but his film documentary of the day (http://www.paolocascio.com/The-Final-Salute/n-fWbBhZ) captures elegantly what human history looks and feels like as it occurs.
“This is likely the most important thing I have ever done in my life and may ever do,” he said after the five-year pilgrimage to tell the story of all five survivors in the last Pearl Harbor reunion. “This was an affair of the heart.” He had become virtually an adopted member of survivor Donald Stratton’s family as he carefully orchestrated the project. They trusted his lens and his heart.
But it goes back 45 years to Cascio’s childhood. His dad was a Chicago hairdresser, and the rules then forbad cutting hair on Monday. So he took his scissors with son in tow to the Army’s missile base in Rolling Meadows and cut GI hair.
Cascio was captured by the sense of selfless duty. He spent years chasing chances to photograph military commemorations. They were open windows into honestly earned emotions where people shared their devotion to one another. Hollywood paid the bills; these images lifted his soul.
And then Edwin Ramsey’s widow allowed him to photograph Ramsey’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013. Then-Lt. Ramsey had been the last American officer to lead a horse cavalry charge in World War II. Cascio’s photographs of that event were revered by Ramsey’s family and lifted him to a higher artistic sphere.
Cascio has come to cherish the heroism his photos honor. The heroism compelled him. He photographs memories, not events, as a poet with light and shadow. Cascio said he is careful not to mix the celebration of heroism with the celebration of war. The Pearl Harbor heroes, he said, make that easier.
“The men from the Arizona are incredibly humble,” he said. “They never passed up a person who asked to talk, or wanted a photo. If you asked me if I’d rather be the Academy Awards or do this for a week, it’s not even a question of what I would do. This was the opposite of Hollywood. You want to shout about it from the mountain. These are HEROES. They will tell you they just wanted to say thanks for being remembered.”
And then came one final memory of Pearl. There is a secret place, known only to few Navy guardians. It is an unmarked, unadvertised secret warehouse. It is the inner sanctum where the metal superstructure of the Arizona is kept. It was taken from the ship’s deck. It is a shrine not meant for tourists.
The Navy took the survivors to the secret warehouse after public events been concluded. Cascio went with them. The bridge still towers. It is a moment of awe.
Then Stratton’s son presented Cascio with small locket that contains a tiny shard from the Arizona. Only family members of survivors have those mementoes. It is Cascio’s most cherished possession these days.
“It was not like I deserved any of this,” Cascio said. “When I told Donald they were just there to tell him thanks for his service, he’d just say, ‘well, everyone has to be somewhere.’ I was just glad I could there, too.”
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Time and tides submerge most signs of history except the memories that events leave. History begins and ends.
George Ely Van Hagen III was the period—the end—that closed four years of world war.
It’s now 75 years from the Dec. 7 that dwells in Infamy, and only five American sailors remain from that day.
Van Hagen, son of Barrington and great, great grandson of President William Henry Harrison, left the world in 2015 at age 92. He had many days of success as a writer, adventurer, and family man. But he had one unique, never-to-be replicated day. He, and no one ever again, would have a day like that again. It was Aug. 10, 1945.
But as he bobbed in swells off Japan’s Honshu Island that day, he had no sense that his would be among the last combat moments of World War II. He might even have been the last American shot down by Japanese fire and the last pulled from the sea by submariner lifeguards. History was crashing into a final act. A day earlier, the second of America’s two atomic bombs obliterated the Japanese city of Nagasaki. The first had fallen on Hiroshima on Aug. 6. Five days later, Japan would surrender.
But on August 10, the Japanese still were trying to kill the young ensign, and he was trying to kill them.
He was a 22-year-old member of Navy AirGroup 27 aboard the USS Independence, a ship that began life as a cruiser but was converted into an aircraft carrier for the Pacific War.
AirGroup 27’s Hellcat single-engine fighters with Van Hagen as wingman for Red Shirley and Swede Nelson took off that day looking for anything to shoot in the Japan Sea. They shot anything that moved.
He recreated his own Day of Infamy 50 years later.
“As you remember,” he wrote to his two surviving flying partners of that day, “we started out that day on a SubCap (patrol) and then targets of opportunity when the weather rolled in. One of our targets was a Jap ship, Red called it a Lugger, that we attacked.
“We carried rockets and let them go on our first pass. The second time over we came in low and racked her with machine gun fire. I was flying 2nd, as Red’s wingman and took a hit in my engine, probably AA (anti-aircraft) or small ground fire. My engine froze up and I couldn’t hold altitude. The plane began to tare (cq) itself apart and shake like “hell.” I knew I had only one choice, keep the nose down, maintain flying speed, and prepare to ditch. I was too low to jump. At first I had some reference to the horizon, but then I hit a rainsquall and I was lost in the soup. I did all the good things like lock the canopy open, unload all rockets, machine gun loads, extra gas tanks, lower tail hook, lower flaps, close air vents, check altitude keep your wings level and then I hit the water. Would you believe, Tail Hook first. I floated an instant and then my nose came down and the starboard wing caught a wave and I was home free. They told us, we had 60 seconds to get out of the F6F before it sank. I made it with time to spare, including parachute, survival gear, Mae West, Smith & Wesson (revolver) with bandolier and 38mm ammo. I couldn’t see you guys above me, the fog was too thick, but I could hear you. It was a long day. My gravest concern was the threat of Japanese fishing boats, who might mistake me for a piece of tuna, and they were looking, I could see their shadows in the fog.”
“The submarine USS Scabbardfish moved in to rescue me that PM and we headed for Saipan. An interesting addition to this story, when we arrived at Saipan, 15 August 1945, every ship in the harbor was celebrating the Wars End, by blowing their whistles, shooting off fire works and playing music. At this point the Skipper of the Scabbardfish took me in tow and deposited me at the Sub-Mariner’s Club on Saipan. ‘You’re on your own,’ he said. I had no orders, no money, just the clothes on my back and with the war over, nobody seemed to care.”
“The people in the Submariner’s (Club) were very friendly and bought me drinks, until I was almost ready to fall off my chair. At that point a large bevy of Hollywood beauties appeared on the scene. They were part of a USO troop, lead by funny man, Charlie Ruggles. When I told them my story, they invited me to join them, as they were going to Guam the next day and I could ride along. This was too good to pass up and so, that is how I met Tyrone Power, the movie actor who turned out to be the pilot for the USO group. You should have seen us cruising along in our private C47 (cargo plane), surrounded with sacks of mail and beautiful show girls. I felt like a ‘Pasha, with his Harem, on the way to Heaven.’ When we got to Guam, headquarters sent me to a rest camp, where you played poker, watched movies and slept. Orders for an orphan pilot at this point were slow in coming through, so I spent time at the docks, looking for a familiar face and a ride back to the 3rd Fleet. I lucked out and hitched a ride out on the CVE Munda (smaller escort air carrier) plus several trips via breeches-bouy (note- a lifebuoy with canvas breeches attached that, when suspended from a rope, can be used to transfer a person to safety from a ship).”
“I made it back to the Independence after some negotiations between the Skipper of the destroyer I was on and the Captain of the Independence. It had something to do with a “Hot” Movie and several barrels of Ice Cream, as ransom, for the return of the pilot. Those were the days. Thanks Swede, for helping me recall.”
That week—and that day on Aug. 10—was not the end of anything in Van Hagen’s life. It was only the beginning. But there would never be another like it.
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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.
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