Lost Generation: Toledo-centric documentary focuses attention on World War I
By Ahmed Elbenni
on the Toledo Blade web site via yahoo.com
"Nobody knows anything about World War I."
Behind his thick-rimmed glasses, Howard Sweet's crystal-blue eyes flit past the camera and back. Pushing against the collar of his navy-blue dress shirt is a tie strewn with American flags. The plainness of his tone belies the intensity of the recollections to come.
"Very few people know anything about the war," Sweet repeats. "It's World War II, the Korean, Vietnam War, and so on and so forth."
The Vietnam War had not been over for a decade when he spoke those words, the graininess of his visage betraying the age of the footage. Compressed in the unassuming frame is a century of time — a man in 1986 sharing the memories of a war he fought in 1918 with an audience in 2021, still speaking long after he, like every one of his brothers in arms, had fallen silent.
"We are the forgotten people."
So begins Glimpses from the Great War, a documentary film more than 30 years in the making by the man sitting across from Sweet, his face hidden behind the camera: Jim Nowak, a part-time filmmaker and full-time serviceman from Toledo. The documentary, released on December 30, 2020, is available for streaming through GlimpsesFromTheGreatWar.us.
The 53-minute film tells the story of World War I through the eyes of Pvts. Howard Sweet and William Claus, both Toledoans who served together in the Ohio National Guard's 37th "Buckeye" Division with the 135th Field Artillery from 1917 to 1919. Their journey took them from Toledo's Camp Walbridge to Alabama's Camp Sheridan, across the Atlantic Ocean and onto the shores of Liverpool, ultimately catapulting them onto the hellish front lines of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in France — the deadliest battle the United States has ever fought.
The last surviving veteran of the World War I died in 2012, but the last stories of the war didn't die with her. Nowak's film provides a glimpse of why. While Claus passed in 1993 and Sweet in 1994, Nowak interviewed both in 1986.
That foresight came from his experience with his grandmother. He always intended to sit down with her and record for posterity the troves of family folklore stockpiled in her remarkable memory.
"I waited a little too long to get those stories," Nowak recalled. The cancer stole his grandmother's voice first, then her sight. Her memories passed with her, leaving behind a regretful Nowak painfully cognizant of the fragile wispiness of our life stories — "If they're not captured, they just disappear."
Anxiety at the prospect of losing precious oral histories and an enduring fascination with military narratives led Nowak to Sweet and Claus. He shot the interviews for their own sake, just to have them "in the can." Not until 2015, as the centennial of the First World War's conclusion loomed, did he begin working on a documentary centered on them. The scope of project quickly grew beyond his expectations, and by 2016 he was touring French battlefields and cemeteries.
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