CARDIFF BY THE SEA, Calif. -- Photography is an artistic way of preserving events in history. Some pictures, like the flag raising at Iwo Jima, capture widespread moments of pride and accomplishment, while others can show a chapter of an individual’s life.
Marines with I Marine Expeditionary Force provided a color guard for Belmount Village Senior Living as they opened a gallery of veterans portraits at their location at Cardiff By the Sea, Jan. 20, in appreciation of the sacrifices service members have made throughout history.
“History truly is fleeting with the World War II veterans,” said Thomas Sanders, the photographer who captured the images in the gallery. “The idea is to create a greater appreciation for all veterans.”
In 2008 and 2009, Sanders, from Sonoma, was commissioned by Belmount Village to visit their locations and photograph veteran residents across the country. In 2010, many of the portraits were published in Sanders’ book alongside quotes and stories from the veterans about their time in the service. The veterans who volunteered to share their stories for the project were presented with a finished copy of the book during the gallery opening.
Over the course of the project, Sanders photographed more than 700 Belmount Village veterans. Each location now has a unique gallery where residents can walk down the hall and find their own portrait or their neighbors’.
Sanders said that each portrait includes an object or background image that reflects the veteran’s service, such as one man who served in the Navy holding the flag from a ship, or the model plane used in the portrait of a pilot who flew ahead of the Enola Gay to check the weather.
Each portrait was designed to give the veteran a sense of pride and to intrigue others to learn their story. While the project focused primarily on those who served during World War II, it also highlighted veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Allen Lyon, a resident at Belmount Village, served as a photographer in the U.S. Army during the Korean War from 1953 to 1955. He said the gallery made him feel more connected to the other veterans.
“These are the residents currently living here,” said Lyon, as he looked at the photographs lining the hallway. “I had no idea they served the way they did.”
Lyon photographed 32 generals and did approximately 2,000 hours of aerial photography over Tokyo according to a placard with details of his service displayed beside his portrait.
“You couldn’t shoot through the plexiglass of the helicopter so they removed it,” said Lyon. “We had to fly with no door!”
This is one of many stories brought to light by a project that Sanders said hit close to home.
“My grandfather was a World War II veteran,” said Sanders, whose grandfather was killed during the Battle of the Bulge and never had the chance to share his stories.
For some families this was the first time they had heard about their loved one’s experiences during their time in the service. Sanders explained that it’s important for them to share, and once they started talking, it brought them closer to their families and other veterans in their community.
“Some of the veterans were hesitant because they served stateside and they feel like they didn’t do their part,” said Sanders. “Once they met the other veterans, it created camaraderie and they started hanging out and talking more.”
Sharing their memories of these events allows veterans to pass on what they learned and accomplished beyond what is recorded in history books.
Catherine Blakespear, a member of the Encinitas City Council, said that history is made up of people and encouraged others to remember the sacrifices those people made.
“I think it’s important that we link our national history to individuals,” said Blakespear. “Honoring veterans reminds us of the important wars that we have fought and our national identity.”
Blakespear explained that the event opened a dialogue between veterans, families, and other residents and let them share a defining chapter of their lives. Some veterans who were photographed for the project passed away before the gallery opening, but some of their loved ones attended on their behalf.
Sanders said he is now revisiting the project and hopes to expand his mission to include veterans from other eras and maybe even other countries. He explained that he wants to show the universal story through the individuals who lived it.
“It’s for the veterans, it’s for their families, it’s for future generations to see who these men and women were,” said Sanders.
By capturing and sharing the memories and experiences of those who served, Sanders and the veterans of Belmount Village are preserving the traditions and freedoms that generations of service members have fought to defend.