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N.D. vets share war memories in film made by UND alum, Watford City native

WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- Leaving their small towns and farms for the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific, the young men of McKenzie County became part of a war that both changed the world and shaped their lives.

WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- Leaving their small towns and farms for the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific, the young men of McKenzie County became part of a war that both changed the world and shaped their lives.

Nine of those veterans share their World War II memories in an hourlong documentary, "Small Town Soldiers," produced by Watford City native Cody Shimek, a freelance videographer in Minneapolis.

Shimek called the film a labor of love. Although it took years to finish, the project captured him from the start and wouldn't leave him at peace until it was accomplished.

In 2003, Shimek arranged interviews through the McKenzie County Veterans Service, which also provided major funding for the film. He thought he might market the video to a producer interested in a World War II documentary.

Instead, the tapes sat idle until 2007, when Shimek determined that if a film was to be produced, he would have to be the one to do it. He obtained additional video and began composing the documentary in February 2008 from many hours of footage.

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Besides the interviews, Shimek intersperses footage of McKenzie County scenery, soldiers' personal photographs, scans from local newspaper archives, U.S. National Archives photos and portions of 1940s World War II documentaries. Mike Endrud of Watford City composed much of the music for the film.

The documentary opens with Jack Bazer, a waist gunner on a bomber, describing a battle in which he was shot in the chest by a German fighter. The film includes William Faulkner, who showed up for the interview in military dress, having just come from honoring a fellow veteran at a funeral. It includes the memories of Christian Stenberg, a mild-mannered Norwegian farmer who saw a year of straight combat, and Barney Bertinuson's emotional stories as a medic in New Guinea,

Shimek said he is most nervous about how veterans and their families will receive the film because of the personal nature of some of the stories.

"They had to see horrible things, and now they are 86 years old, and they still haven't forgotten them. What we have asked of them is really incredible," Shimek said.

Shimek said the film also is a tribute to his father, who died in 2005 without seeing the final cut. Shimek and his father shared a love for history, especially the era of World War II.

Shimek recalled the grand visions he had as a child of the soldiers and the war, which he viewed as the ultimate struggle between good and evil.

"When I did the documentary, it's funny how you think you are going to get these epic stories of heroism," he said, noting the interviews took a different turn. "So much of this is these guys remembering losing their friends. I think it probably has a little darker tone than people will expect."

The film is told entirely in the words of the veterans, with no narration. Shimek said the technique created the effect that he wanted, but it also meant scrapping portions of interviews that were less able to stand alone without narrative explanation. Shimek retrieved some of the film that landed on the cutting room floor to include as special features on DVDs, which people can buy.

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Other veterans in the film are Joel Grotte, Thomas Kellogg, John Pojorlie, Jim Taylor and John Winden. Several of the veterans interviewed are no longer living.

Taylor, of Watford City, who had been a Navy pilot, said he recognizes the need to capture the stories about what went on during the war.

"It's good to get first-hand knowledge," he said. "We were lucky. There were a lot of people who were killed. It's not a happy thing, but it happened, and you have to face it."

He tells his own story in the film about being hit by two suicide bomber airplanes.

"We almost went down," he said. "I can never forget it."

Shimek said the veterans told stories in the interviews that they had never told before, often because no one ever asked. Now those interviews are preserved on audio cassettes at the North Dakota Historical Society. Uncut video interviews are in the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County.

Shimek is working with Prairie Public Broadcasting on a possible television airing of his film.

Shimek, a 1991 graduate of Watford City High School, studied broadcasting at the University of North Dakota. He spent about five years working for companies in London, Bismarck and Minneapolis before establishing his own company, Media Men, and has done video work for several History Channel documentaries.

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