HANCOCK COUNTY — For decades, the 14 shadowboxes hung on a wall in the basement of the Hancock County Memorial Building, untouched, gathering dust.
With each passing day, hundreds of service photos enclosed in the displays — all picturing Hancock County World War II veterans in uniform — began to fade, some nearly beyond recognition. In 2013, the photos were removed from the wall and placed in the vault of the Greenfield City Hall for safe keeping.
Now, a project to better preserve those images and share them with area residents who might recognize some of the faces is nearing completion.
For the past eight months, Jim McWhinney, an employee with the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department, has spearheaded the project to digitize the images — 963 in all — and unearth some of the underlying stories behind them.
McWhinney and a handful of other city employees have spent countless hours delicately removing the tattered photos from the frames, scanning and uploading them to an online archive, hancockcounty heroes.org.
With only about 70 images left to remove from the frames and scan, McWhinney said he expects to finish digitizing the images in coming weeks. Nearly 900 images are currently posted on the organization’s website, which offers free downloads of the images.
But the work is tedious, McWhinney said, requiring workers to carefully remove rusted staples and scrape away any debris with a polished archivist spatula to avoid scratching the photos.
McWhinney estimated he and the other volunteers, who include Dave Goodrich, webmaster for the city of Greenfield, and his wife, Denise, have logged more than 100 hours working on the project.
Still, McWhinney said the end result will be worth the time commitment.
After restoring the images, the group hopes to print reproductions and hang them in prominent locations across the county, including Greenfield City Hall, the Hancock County Courthouse and several other local buildings, McWhinney said.
“We want them to be seen,” he said. “There’s just shy of a thousand stories behind those pictures.”
And some of the veterans pictured in the displays are still around to share their stories.
Shortly after beginning the restoration process, McWhinney made contact with Keith Crider of Greenfield, who served as an Army sergeant for four years and is one of the faces pictured in the display.
Crider, 92, who fought during the Battle of Bulge and the Battle of Normandy, said he’s happy to see residents making an effort to preserve the memory of soldiers.
Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell has agreed to host the archive through the city’s website because he said he sees the importance of preserving memories like Crider’s.
“These are our heroes,” Fewell said. “It’s history we want to make darn sure we preserve.”
Most of the photos simply have a name and date written on the back, and until recently, the group didn’t know where the displays originated.
In early February, Hancock County historian Joe Skvarenina came across the transcript of an interview he completed with several local veterans dating back to 1993 that revealed that Edgar Ridlen, commander of American Legion Post 119 in the 1940s, collected the images during World War II.
Ridlen, a World War I veteran who died in 1978, asked family members of enlisted soldiers to submit photos for the display, Skvarenina said.
The photos were first hung at the county courthouse but were moved to the memorial building shortly after, Skvarenina said.
Before displaying the photos again, McWhinney said the group needs to find funding to hire an expert to digitally repair imperfections in the photos using specialized computer programs.
Many of the photos have been damaged by persistent exposure to sunlight, which has washed away details and faded several soldiers’ faces.
Hiring an expert to restore the photos likely will cost thousands of dollars, he said, adding that the group plans to apply for funding through grants from community organizations.
Later this month, McWhinney plans to bring the photos to a roundtable discussion in Indianapolis featuring dozens of World War II veterans, where he hopes to share some stories of Hancock County’s veterans.
The meeting, scheduled for 5 p.m. March 28 at 2100 E. 71st St. in Indianapolis, is open to the public.
14 shadowboxes full of images sat, untouched, for decades in the Hancock County Memorial Building.
963 photos of county servicemen and women were kept for years in those displays
100 hours have been spent digitizing the images and placing them online at www.hancockcountyheroes.org.
“There’s just shy of a thousand stories behind those pictures.”
– Jim McWhinney, a city employee who led the effort to digitize 963 veterans’ photographs
“These are our heroes. It’s history we want to make darn sure we preserve.”
Mayor Chuck Fewell, on an effort to digitize veterans’ service photos.