GREENFIELD — A slight smile — perhaps a smirk — crossed Ewing Shields’ face. Below his faded photograph: a black name tag.
The Purple Heart recipient died overseas in battle in 1943.
Shields’ photo is one of nearly 1,000 that local volunteers are archiving to preserve the memory of Hancock County’s World War II veterans.
While volunteers don’t know much about the 963 tattered pictures, they’re hoping to discover more and make the photos available for generations to come.
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The pictures come from a display that had been in the basement of the Hancock County Memorial Building for years.
In 2013, 14 shadow boxes were removed from the basement and placed in the vault of Greenfield City Hall for safe keeping.
Now volunteers — city employees who are donating their time — are carefully removing the rusted staples, scanning the front and back of each image and placing them on a website to be launched late this month. The site, hancockcountyheroes.org, will offer free downloads of images.
It’s unknown who put the display together some 70 years ago and whether it contains all from the community who served in World War II. But one thing’s certain: These history buffs have a passion for preservation.
“Because somebody has to,” is the simple reason Dave Goodrich gives on why he’s spending hours scanning and labeling. “We have a unique opportunity with this we haven’t had with other veterans before.”
Some World War II veterans are alive and can tell stories, Goodrich points out. The photos and the stories need to be preserved before the memories are lost.
Goodrich is the webmaster for the city of Greenfield. Together with city parks employee Jim McWhinney and a few other occasional volunteers, the small crew is taking a journey through history.
Most pictures simply have a name and a date — perhaps the date the picture was taken, perhaps the date the veteran enlisted.
Some — such as Shields — have a black name tag. That probably means they were killed in the war, Goodrich said.
Out of curiosity, Goodrich made an online search on that smiling young man: Shields, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces, was killed Nov. 13, 1943, and buried in Cambridge, England, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
While Goodrich won’t have the time to research every veteran, it’s clear there are many stories to be shared.
Like Clarence Middleton, whose picture gave a clue that he was serving in the southwest Pacific.
And then there were buddies Aaron Seward and Donald F. Wiggins, who had their picture taken together.
In the tedious process of archiving, that photo stumped the volunteers.
“We thought we had a perfect system, then Jim pulls it off and says, ‘Well, this just messed up your system,’” Goodrich said. “We thought, ‘If it was important enough to them to get their picture taken together, we wouldn’t separate them.’”
Spending less than $1,000 of their own money on supplies — including gloves and a polished archivist spatula to avoid scratches — the volunteers take one photo out, label it with acid-free archival paper, scan the photograph’s front and back, and store it in an envelope. They’ve spent 15 evening hours so far and have another 55 or so yet to go.
The hard work is appreciated, said Jim Barnhart, a Greenfield resident who remembers what it was like to see his two older brothers go off to war.
A young teenager at the time, Barnhart remembers watching newsreels and thinking of Bob and Bill.
“It’s not fun, I’ll tell ya,” Jim Barnhart said. “You worry about them. I’m grateful both of ours came back. Some of them didn’t.”
McWhinney says it’s hard to know how the display came together in the first place. He doesn’t know whether it was a local club that organized the photo drive or when, but he heard that pictures were collected on the courthouse plaza at one point. A series of sun-damaged images proves it, he said.
Greg Roland, another city employee who loves to dig into newspaper microfilm, said his research so far has come up empty.
“I’ve never really found any articles through the newspaper on who did it,” Roland said. “Obviously we know why, but somebody put an awful lot of work into collecting those pictures, making those frames.”
While the first 140 or so photos will be launched online soon, the project will continue until the archiving is complete. Then, Goodrich and McWhinney hope to put the original 3-by-5 photos back in their original order and hang the display at city hall. Perhaps a digital kiosk could be added to the memorial building.
There is talk about having the photographs professionally restored, but that could cost at least $20,000, Goodrich said.
“If people can get a honeymoon paid for on (crowdfunding website) gofundme.com, I would think we could get this paid for,” he said. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
McWhinney and Goodrich are hoping a buzz will begin in the community about the project. Maybe they’ll hear about how and when it came together in the first place. Or they’ll hear stories about loved ones from long ago.
Goodrich says people can email him at email@example.com.
“If we go through enough different sources, we’re hoping to connect the dots,” Goodrich said.
Greenfield city employees are donating their own time and money to preserve 963 photographs of World War II veterans by scanning them and placing them on a new website, hancockcountyheroes.org, which will be launched late this month. Here’s a look at the project:
- Fourteen shadow boxes containing 3-by-5-inch photographs of World War II veterans were stored in the basement of the Hancock County Memorial Building for years, but it’s unknown who collected the pictures in the first place or when.
- In 2013, Greenfield city employees removed the shadow boxes in placed them in a vault at Greenfield City Hall for safe keeping.
- Now a small crew of local volunteers are using professional archival supplies to remove the pictures from the shadow boxes, label them, scan them an dplace them online.
- The website will offer free high-resolution downloads of the photographs.
- Eventually the photographs may be placed back in their original shadow boxes and put on display at city hall. A digital kiosk may be added to the memorial building.
For more information on the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.