Local heroes remembered in films

We are fickle creatures, by nature.
Coastal Point

On the positive side, we are often quick to forgive. If a person makes a mistake, we are typically quick to pounce on it. But if that individual atones for his or her error, we normally forgive and move on to something else.

On the negative side, if a person or group does something heroic, we are equally quick to jump on the bandwagon, shower the people with praise and then, once again, move on to whatever is next in the ongoing parade that marks our lives.

For instance, I remember being 12 years old when Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. It was a horribly snowy day, and we were off from school as my regular television viewing was halted with coverage from the crash. Of the 74 passengers on that flight, 70 died in the accident, and four motorists died as they were crossing the bridge that day.

I was glued to the television as rescue workers surveyed the damage and attempted to help people who were swimming for their lives in the icy Potomac River. One woman was holding onto a rope thrown her way by rescue workers when she lost her grip. An onlooker, later identified as Congressional Budget Office assistant Lenny Skutnik, threw off his jacket and dove into the water, dragging the woman to safety.

Skutnik was a hero. Then-President Ronald Reagan celebrated him during the State of the Union Address. He was on the cover of national magazines. If it happened today, Skutnik would have been on the daytime talk show circuit and his Twitter page would have about 10 million followers.

But Skutnik is now mostly a footnote. I’m sure those of you who are of age are now nodding your head, thinking, “Oh, yeah. I remember that guy.” I’m also sure that many of you who are not of age have never heard his name before at all.

I was reminded of Skutnik on Monday night at the Clayton Theater in Dagsboro after watching the excellent documentary, “Vanishing Voices of World War II: Southern Delaware’s Humble Heroes.”

The film was put together by author James Diehl and Bill Sammons of Watermark Productions, after two books by Diehl on the subject: “World War II Heroes of Southern Delaware” and “World War II Heroes of Coastal Delaware.”

The movie was narrated by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War and the son of a World War II veteran, and included interviews with dozens of Southern Delaware residents who served our nation during the war.

It was staggering. It was awe-inspiring. And it was humbling.

I’ve known Diehl for quite a while, and been well aware of his writing skills. And, make no mistake, his writing was fluid, crisp and held the story together seamlessly. There were several points in the film when I found myself replaying a line over in my head that was just beautifully crafted.

But the film was carried by the World War II veterans.

Their stories were filled with vivid details, as if their tales took place last year, instead of 65-plus years ago in far corners of the globe. They told stories of horror, of comraderie, of patriotism and of sheer fear. You laughed at remembrances, sat in solitary thought of their ordeals and swelled with a sense of national and humanistic pride at their efforts. They dodged any mentions of heroism in their interviews and deflected praise to others who served with them.

And all too often, we simply see them in the streets and stores as those old guys with the hats. We forget or ignore their accomplishments because they happened long ago, before many of us were alive. We have our own lives to worry about now.

But we have these lives in no small part due to these people’s efforts. When our nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor, these are the people who responded. They shed their blood to defend a nation and an ideal. Let’s not continue to forget these true heroes.

To order a DVD of “Vanishing Voices,” go to the Web site at www.ww2-heroes.com.