George Ciampa has always been obsessed by death. As a child, he was deeply disturbed by the funeral of a young cousin, especially the way the adults expressed their grief. Later, as a middle-aged father, he was devastated when lymphoma took the life of his first wife, Doris. Widowed with two children, 11 and 10, to raise on his own, Ciampa didn’t date again for a decade.
During World War II, death really put a stamp on his conscience. Ciampa served in the Army’s 607th Graves Registration Company, following U.S. soldiers from Normandy nearly to Berlin on their bloody march to liberate Europe from Hitler’s Germany. He was 19 at war’s end in Europe, and his job for 11 months was to collect, document and bury dead soldiers in temporary cemeteries along the way. “It was estimated that we handled about 75,000 bodies both American and German,” he explains.
Ciampa’s early fear of death is paralleled by a love of freedom. Passing through newly liberated towns, villages and concentration camps in Europe, he saw firsthand what it means when freedom is taken away.
Sharing that message is now his life’s mission. At 81, in 2006, he began a remarkable career in documentary filmmaking, retracing his wartime steps in Europe, reflecting on his experiences, interviewing veterans and recording the stories of Europeans who survived the occupation and the hard-won liberation. “Let Freedom Ring: The Lesson is Priceless” has received rave reviews and has appeared in the GI Film Festival. It continues to be broadcast on 90 different PBS stations throughout the country, and is distributed to dozens of schools in DVD form. A follow-up documentary in 2007, “Let Freedom Ring: Memories of France,” follows a similar story line, focusing on the French liberation; it received the same kind of response. At 85, Ciampa is working on a third film, this one to chronicle the lives and deaths of U.S. Army 8th Air Force airmen, some who crashed in the European theater during World War II. This is another in his series on the price of freedom.
Ciampa, a member of American Legion Post 222 in Laguna Beach, Calif., recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine.Q: What inspired you to make films like these?
A: It goes back to when I had just turned 19 years old in Belgium. We had just liberated a town there called Fosse, and there was an older gentleman, an 82-year-old man who used to work for Shirley Temple’s father and had been a botanist in the United States. He had gone home to Belgium for a vacation and then couldn’t leave. It was 1939. The Nazis took over.
When I met him, he was living in an apartment right above a store, and he had a big sign there that said “liberté.” He wrote down for me what liberty meant to him, in three different languages. I still have that. I never thought about liberty, living in the U.S. It really struck a chord.
Go forward then to the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the first time I went back. I took my two kids with me, who were 22 and 23 at the time, with my fiancée who I met 10 years after my wife had died. They talked me into going over. I didn’t really want to go. There were a lot of GIs who didn’t want to go back. We went on a tour with other veterans and talked about our landing in Normandy, and my kids said, “Hey Dad, you never told us about this.” There were a lot of reasons.
We were walking through the Normandy cemetery, and it was quite an emotional feeling ... I helped bury a lot of these guys. I looked at the crosses and Stars of David, and I wondered, why don’t they have a date of birth instead of a date of death? Date of death is very often approximated. You couldn’t tell how old these guys were, as I told my kids and fiancée. But I could tell them. Too many were 18, 19 and 20 years old. That really bothered me then, and it bothers me today.
As we were going through there, my daughter said to me, “Dad, you know what? I would like to do a film someday about freedom.”
That was the second time this struck a chord. That was 1994. So in 2001, just before 9/11, I’m over in Belgium with my daughter and her camcorder. She interviewed me sitting with a priest in his home next to the Henri Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium, one of the cemeteries we initiated in the Battle of the Bulge. At one time, there were over 17,000 buried there. It was later moved – after the war was over – about 500 yards. They disinterred all those graves, and the remains were placed in caskets. Keep in mind that when these guys were buried initially, they were put in mattress covers and then in the dirt.
Then my daughter interviewed people who had lost their freedom during the Nazi occupation and put together her own little film. She interviewed me as we were walking through the cemeteries. It was all done with that camcorder, but I was very impressed with what she did and proud. She was the inspiration for me to do a film about freedom, about the loss of freedom.Q: After that 1994 trip, you launched an effort to improve security at the Henri Chapelle cemetery. Can you explain how that went?
A: Henri Chapelle was the only military cemetery over there that did not have gates to secure it, with the exception of a World War I cemetery near Paris. The Henri Chapelle cemetery has a road that separates the burial grounds from an overlook area. It’s a well-traveled two-lane road – a highway – that goes right through there.
In fact, tour buses stop there at the cemetery building to use the restrooms. There were things happening there that my friends in Belgium were telling me about – people from the Netherlands were coming over and doing drugs in the overlook area and some were running their motorcycles on the cemetery grounds. I got upset hearing this and so I got a campaign ready for politicians, radio stations, TV stations, friends, neighbors, everybody I could think of, to try to get gates on the cemetery.
The chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission said he did not want to put gates on the cemetery and give it a fortress-like appearance. That upset me a lot. Sixty years before, there was no problem with an “open cemetery” there. Now, people don’t really have the reverence that they had in those days. Those guys gave their lives to free the people of this country. So, anyway, I never did get gates on that cemetery. I even offered to go to American companies doing business in Belgium and raise the funds to do it. No, they were not interested. They just didn’t want to put gates on it.Q: How did that experience lead you to filmmaking?
A: My 607th Graves Registration Company – actually I and Vito Mastrangelo, another member of my company, decided to put up a plaque on the wall of the Remember Museum, which is about two miles from the Henri Chapelle cemetery, thanking the people of that area for remembering the soldiers who are buried there, and thanking the Belgian owners of the museum, Mathilde and Marcel Schmetz, for what they are doing. We had a dedication, and Maj. Gen. David Grange was there when we unveiled the plaque. This general – he and a retired colonel, Paul Herbert, who later worked for him at the Cantigny First Division Foundation – were told about the plan of getting gates on the cemetery. They asked me for all my correspondence with the American Battle Monuments Commission. They tried to help. Well, nothing happened except for better police patrol, motion lighting and a couple of hedge rows.
Because I had been going to Belgium on occasion, they asked if I ever thought about taking teachers over there, so they could come back home and teach young people about World War II. It took me 24 hours before I called the associate superintendent of schools in Torrance, Calif., who had been the principal of the high school where my kids went. I told him, “John you have four high schools in Torrance. I would like to take a teacher from each one of your high schools to Belgium for the purpose of doing a documentary about the loss of freedom of the Belgian people and for the purpose of having DVDs to distribute in high schools, to teach them about the loss of freedom.”
John (Schmitt) told me, “George, you are talking to a military brat. My father was in the Air Corps and is buried in Arlington with my mother. Come on in and see me.” So I did.
I thought what I am going to do is raise money to do this, not only take teachers but also take veterans who fought over there in the Battle of the Bulge. He arranged to get the teachers for me. They were willing. They were fantastic. And they are doing a great job now. One of the teachers wrote a lesson plan and they are using the DVDs in their classrooms. That has been very gratifying. Q: What is your goal for distribution of the DVDs?
A: My vision is to get them into 2,100 public schools and then the private schools. Hopefully, it will catch on in other states, too. Funds are needed for this.Q: How has death, particularly all you saw in World War II, influenced your life?
A: When I was a little boy, I had the biggest fear of death. I had been brought up in Boston, until I was 9 years old, and there were a couple of funerals I went to as a little kid. One in particular was a young cousin, and I remember at the gravesite my mother, who had previously lost her voice, suddenly got it back when she screamed the little girl’s name – “Teresa!” – as they were lowering the casket into the grave. Then – and I think Jewish people still do this – everybody threw in a little pinch of dirt.
Two years later, my grandfather died. I was 7 years old. And I remember the wake in the home, the casket in the bay window. My parents were immigrants, and I remember hearing them speaking Italian and English in the kitchen, drinking and eating, laughing and crying. And I am a little bewildered boy looking at my grandfather, who is dead. After that, I always thought I was dying. I drove my parents nuts.
When I tried to get into the Air Corps after World War II came along, my eyes were 20:22, so I couldn’t make it. I actually cried when I failed. I tried two times. The doctor said, “Look at it this way ... if you got into the Air Corps, you would probably get killed.”
He was probably right. Maybe if I did go into the Air Corps, I may have been killed. I got drafted and got put in a graves registration company. I didn’t want anything to do with dead bodies. I wanted to get out of that. Then the Air Corps came recruiting on our base – they had a base right next to us in Cheyenne, Wyo., and the eye requirements were lowered to 20:30 – I could pass that. I said, “Let me sign up.” I was accepted, but I didn’t go through the proper protocol with my company commander. He was a jerk, and he transferred me out of the graves registration company I was in and into one that was going overseas right away. So, now I am with a bunch of guys I don’t know, all of them older, and I am on a ship going overseas. And they are all kidding me because Roosevelt had made a speech that “no 18-year-old would set foot on foreign soil.” The guys were all kidding me, “Don’t worry, Ciampa. They’re going to turn the ship around and take you home. You’re not supposed to be going overseas.” Well, as you know, there were a lot of 18-year-olds killed in World War II. But that’s another story.Q: And you came ashore on D-Day.
A: When I landed in Normandy, I was 18. Ten days later, I turned 19. I was very immature. I weighed 115 pounds, had never been away from home, and couldn’t swim. That was my biggest fear getting off the liberty ship and onto a landing craft.
Worrying about drowning. I was not in the first wave. We were sitting out there for quite a while. The German 88s, you could hear them – we used to call them “screaming mimis” – you could hear them going over the ship, which was broadside with the shore, and we were all waiting to go down rope ladders to get onto the landing craft. We were watching ships get hit. I remember a tanker getting hit and exploding - bodies in the water, debris in the water.
We went in on a landing craft. Our job was to clear the beaches and pick up the bodies. The whole 11 months, every day from Normandy until the end of the war, our job was picking up bodies, initiating temporary cemeteries – 17 of them – in France, Belgium and Germany. And then when the war was over, we had to disinter a cemetery in Germany ... we had German prisoners digging the graves, and then we had to re-identify the remains of all these bodies that had deteriorated in that short time. They were all shipped in boxes back to Belgium, France or Holland. And, of course, that was a miserable undertaking.
For 11 months, I did all this work like a robot. I tried not to look at faces. But you can’t really keep from doing that. And you see bodies in all shapes and forms. You pick up tankers who were burnt to a crisp. It was hell for me, in particular, because I had this big fear of death as a kid, and then I had to do this.Q: How many soldiers did this (graves registering) during the European campaign?A: I am not sure. We had 125 guys in our company. We were the first GR company to land in Normandy. I was fortunate in that I landed on Utah Beach rather than Omaha. Half of our company went in on Utah, and the other half Omaha.
As far as fatalities go, we lost 18 guys while on maneuvers off the coast of England on April 25. It was called “Exercise Tiger.” Three of the four LSTs out there were sunk. Almost 800 guys were killed. We lost most of our first platoon. I could have been one of those guys, but fortunately we were not chosen. You can read books about Exercise Tiger. It was kept secret for a long time. A German U-boat sunk those three LSTs.
I think about those guys at Omaha. My God. It was no fun, landing at Utah, either, but Omaha was worse. We made three passes before we actually landed. I didn’t find out until years later why we did that. I thought we did that because of the 88s – we could hear them zing over us. I thought that was why we turned around and kept coming back in. I found out later it was because of the obstacles the Germans had put in the water. Actually we were looking for a place to land. Q: Once you did land, you immediately began collecting bodies from the field?A: Exactly. Q: How did that affect you?
A: When I came home, I was 20 and a half. I was in the army of occupation for another eight months in Germany. I was just glad to be alive ... and to have fun. At that point, I thought it wasn’t so bad to be embalmed when you die and put in a casket, you know. These guys were buried in the dirt like an animal. I also thought, “Why should I have been worried about drowning during the invasion?” I think back, and hell, it would be better to drown and your body would be gone, rather than just put in the dirt. A lot of people don’t know that a lot of these guys – their bodies were just put in the dirt, with their clothes on. Their boots may have been taken off because shoes were needed. Paratroopers – we just wrapped them in their parachutes.Q: After your business career, and after raising your kids, how did the message about freedom’s value take up your time?
A: It went from a mission to get the message to schools, to a passion. I am passionate in life, period. I am very passionate about everything. I am passionate about freedom. Freedom can be lost. My purpose is to teach people the lessons of what it’s like to lose one’s freedom. That is what it’s all about. That is the reason I am doing this.
When I talk to kids in the classroom, their eyes open wide. I tell them firsthand about people I know – some now dead – people I know who did lose their freedom and did lose members of their families. I tell them, “Just imagine someone breaking in your door tonight and taking your father and your brother and never seeing them again.” Yeah. They listen when you talk to them in those terms, about what it’s like to lose your freedom.Q: On camera, you serve as a host and interviewer, but how else are you involved in the filmmaking process?
A: I am involved in every phase of doing these films except shooting them and editing them. However, my daughter directed the first one. I’ve had to raise all the funds myself. I worked hard doing that, day and night. I started a 501 (c) 3, non-profit, with the help of a gentleman who was my first contributor. He saw a story in a newspaper about what I was doing. He contributed $1,500, and he said you gotta start a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, which I did. Then I went out looking for money. I got Northrop-Grumman to kick the project off as my presenting sponsor, and right now, when the films are shown on PBS, which they started doing last November for Veterans Day, on 90 stations, and again for Memorial Day, Northrop-Grumman gets its message, audio and video, at the beginning and end of the film. In the second film, I had the Cantigny First Division Foundation kick it off. After that, I had to get in there and raise the additional funds to do this film as well as the other. My second film is “Memories of France.” I was disappointed when I presented it to a film festival in France thinking for sure that they would want to show this film about their own people, but it wasn’t accepted.
I get no revenue for doing what I am doing. I do have a new board director now who has been giving me some help, but that is the only help I have had. I have had to do everything myself except actually shoot the film and edit it. I am proud of that.Q: Now that you are on your third film, is the situation the same?
A: This third film, I ran into the story while shooting the “Memories of France” in France. I knew about this French gentleman who had researched crash sites of 8th Air Force planes. When he was a 9-year-old boy, he saw a P-38 crash near his home, and he saw the pilot’s body. In retirement, he had a monument built for him, shaped like the wing of a P-38 made from granite. It has the likeness of the lieutenant etched on it. This gentleman has researched many crash sites, gotten the names of the dead crewmen and has the names of many of the families. He has hosted families and has taken them to the crash sites.
The Eighth Air Force had a tough job. Twenty-six thousand of them killed, 56,000 casualties, 25 percent of them either killed, captured or wounded. Survivors have a real story to tell. It’s going to be a military/human interest story. I’m knocking myself out to get the funding, but I don’t know how successful I am going to be.Q: What kind of audience responses have you received?
A: I am really gratified by all the e-mails I have received from people. Some tell me they went through a box of tissues watching the film. Nothing was rehearsed. In fact, one of the teachers started to ask me about something, and I told her how it felt to be there at the very location where we had 17,000 bodies at one time, buried right there. I walked the teachers right through the grounds, where the graves were. Naturally, it got to me. I got pretty emotional at that point. You can also see the emotion that these civilians had, having been there.
Having been there and done that myself, and then doing a film about it, is really emotional for me.
Visit www.letfreedomringforall.org to learn more about George Ciampa and the Let Freedom Ring project.