Chris Dennett, of Surrey, England, never met his great-grandfather, who served in the Royal Welsh Guards and died at the age of 33, before the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.
He says the family connection led him to make a documentary to keep alive the memory of his great-grandfather and other World War II veterans.
“There’s no ceiling when it comes to the numbers of veterans I want to meet,” Dennett said. “I’m in a race against time.”
His journey brought him to Howard County this month, where he interviewed a handful of veterans.
Dennett, a 29-year-old historian, says he founded the “We Will Remember” project, last summer and also has conducted interviews in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, 558,000 were living in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Dennett says he has a trip to Scotland planned and is looking to travel to the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and Nigeria. The documentary has American, English, German and Romanian perspectives, he says.
During his second trip to the United States in as many years, Dennett interviewed 15 veterans in five days earlier this month, receiving names of local veterans from Columbia resident Janette McAnallen.
Last fall, Dennett interviewed McAnallen’s father, Alfred Petrogallo for the documentary. Petrogallo, 93 of Columbia, was a member of the U.S. Army in the 190th Field Artillery Unit. McAnallen has watched her father’s segment of the documentary.
McAnallen 60, of Ellicott City, offered to help Dennett find more veterans to record for his second trip to the United States. She found a handful of veterans through Mission BBQ, an Ellicott City chain restaurant, the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., and assisted-living and senior-living homes in Maryland.
“I really respect his [Dennett’s] passion and commitment,” McAnallen says. “I like his perspective on it and his respect, admiration and honor toward these veterans.”
McAnallen met Dennett through Holly Rotondi, executive director of the Friends of the National World War II Memorial Inc.
Dennett reached out to Rotondi in September 2017, after receiving recommendations from the Department of Veteran Affairs. In return, Rotondi contacted 30 to 40 veterans, explaining the documentary project.
“It’s nice to keep these stories and memories alive,” Rotondi, 43, of Washington, says. “We were very pleased to make some introductions for Chris.”
In Howard County, Dennett spent part of a day with Jack Taylor and Salvatore “Sam” Cascio.
Taylor and Cascio are both 92 years old, both reside in Ellicott City and both served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. They met 18 months ago.
Cascio, who was born on Sept. 11, 1925, is two weeks older than Taylor, who was born on Sept. 28, 1925. Casico grew up in Baltimore and Taylor spent the first 13 years of his life in Lemay, Missouri, before moving to Washington, D.C.
The two met on Dec. 7, 2016 at a Pearl Harbor Day lunch at Mission BBQ, which hosts programs supporting veterans. At one point during the war, they were in Miami at the same time, just hotels away from each other.
“We’ve become best friends, this is my best buddy and we don’t see each other too often but I think about Sam all the time and I try to remember to call him,” Taylor says.
This past Christmas, Taylor joined Cascio and his family for festivities.
Both Cascio and Taylor say after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they wanted to join the war efforts.
“Dec. 7 was a Sunday and we were out playing, we played stick ball and I guarantee you it shook everybody up,” Taylor recalled.
Cascio joined the Air Corps in 1943 as an aviation cadet in training to become a bombardier.
“I had to fight my father the whole time [about enlisting] but my mother signed my papers,” Cascio said. “We volunteered. We knew what we were getting into.”
Throughout his two years in the service, Cascio was stationed in Lubbock, Texas, Ada, Okla. and Miami, Fla.
When Taylor turned 18, he became a voluntary inductee for the Air Corps.
“My mother and father were dead set against me going into the service.” he remembers. “They would not sign my papers.”
Taylor also joined the Air Corps in 1943 and did basic training in Miami. He was stationed in San Antonio, Smyrna, Tenn. and Dennison, Texas.
Cascio’s wife Mary, passed died in 1980. They had five children. Cascio also has 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Taylor was married to his wife Mary, best known as Bea, for 71 years and 19 days before she passed away on July 1, 2016. They had one daughter and twin sons. Taylor also has two great-grandchildren and two grandchildren.
Interviewing Taylor and Cascio was Dennett’s first time doing an interview with two veterans.
“There’s a certain intimacy that comes from one-on-one interviews … but watching the dynamic and affection between Jack and Sam was delightful,” Dennett says.
‘Empathy for your subjects’
“Documentaries allow you to tell stories that matter,” Dennett says.
Dennett founded “We Will Remember” in 2017 and says the project is self-funded and that he has spent thousands of dollars.
Dennett says he is talks with production houses but was unable to comment further. In the coming weeks, he says he is going to launch produced content on social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. At this time, his website wwremember.com has been pulled due to internet glitches.
While attending university in England, Dennett says he wrote his thesis on the British during World War II. He studied the morale of the British Army and the civilian population in the build-up to the D-Day, the Normandy landings.
Now, Dennett says he splits his time working on the documentary and working as a copywriter and scriptwriter.
His questions for the documentary are divided into three themes: life before World War II, time during the war and present day.
“What I want to know is how it felt. I want to be in your shoes,” he says. “I want to know what worried you, I want to know what it was like to been torn away from your parents or your sweetheart at the time or maybe you met your sweetheart in the services.”
Dennett’s final question to the veterans is, “If you could package up your wartime experience into a piece of advice, wisdom, warning for our generations and those to come, what would it be? ”
“There’s been so many [questions] that gave me pause,” he says. The common theme with the responses is the veteran’s “despair at how divided society seems to be.”
Dennett says that empathy turns a good documentary into a great documentary.
“Empathy for your subject and empathy for your audience,” he says. “If you’re focused on humans, you need to ‘get’ humans.”
For now, there’s no set deadline and as for a working title, Dennett says “there’s going to be a lot of them … We Will Remember will do for now.”
Dennett says he feels morally compelled to make this documentary.
“It’s speculated that humans can only feel connected to 80 years of history and so, if history repeats itself, forgetting this [the World War II] generation is very dangerous,” he says.
“I think younger generations, and not [only] my generation but even my mom’s generation don’t know enough about the Second World War or don’t care enough to know about the Second World War,” he said.
Dennett visited his great-grandfather’s grave ifor the first time last summer.
“The owner of the B&B [bed and breakfast] who hosted us went out of his to print a color photo of my great grandfather and placed it on his grave,” he says.
Dennett says without a doubt that learning about his great-grandfather fueled his passion for World War II history. When completed, the documentary will be dedicated to his great-grandfather and the millions who fought and died in World War II.
“Perhaps there’s catharsis in that I’m able to ask the questions I was never able to ask my great grandfather.”