May 30th – “Nobody knows anything about the First World War.”
Behind his thick-rimmed glasses, Howard Sweet’s crystal blue eyes dart past the camera and back. A tie studded with American flags presses against the collar of his dark blue shirt. The clarity of his tone contradicts the intensity of the memories to come.
“Very few people know anything about war,” Sweet repeats. “It’s World War II, the Koreans, the Vietnam War and so on and so forth.”
The Vietnam War hadn’t been over in a decade when he uttered these words. The grain of his face indicated the age of the footage. A century of time is squeezed into the humble frame – a man who shared memories of a war he waged in 1918 in 1986 with an audience in 2021, and spoke long after he fell silent like every one of his brothers in arms.
“We are the forgotten people.”
So begins Glimpses from the Great War, a documentary that has been made for more than 30 years by the man sitting across from Sweet, whose face is hidden behind the camera: Jim Nowak, a part-time filmmaker and full-time soldier from Toledo. The documentary, released on December 30, 2020, can be streamed via GlimpsesFromTheGreatWar.us.
The 53-minute film tells the story of World War I through the eyes of Pvts. Howard Sweet and William Claus, both Toledoans who served with the 135th Field Artillery in the 37th Buckeye Division of the Ohio National Guard from 1917 to 1919. Her journey took her from Toledo’s Camp Walbridge to Alabama’s Camp Sheridan, across the Atlantic and on to the Liverpool coast, and eventually catapulted her to the infernal front of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in France – the deadliest battle the United States has ever fought .
The last surviving World War I veteran died in 2012, but the final war stories did not die with her. Nowak’s film gives an insight into the why. While Claus died in 1993 and Sweet died in 1994, Nowak interviewed both in 1986.
The story goes on
This foresight came from his experience with his grandmother. He always intended to sit down with her and record for posterity the treasures of family folklore that were preserved in her remarkable memory.
“I waited a little too long to get these stories,” Nowak recalled. The crab stole his grandmother’s voice first, then her vision. Her memories faded with her, leaving a regretful Nowak, painfully aware of the fragile wispiness of our life stories – “If they are not captured, they just disappear.”
The fear of losing valuable oral traditions and the persistent fascination with military tales led Nowak to Sweet and Claus. He filmed the interviews for their own sake, only to have them “in the can”. It was not until 2015, when the centenary of the end of World War I was looming, that he began working on a documentary that focused on her. The scope of the project quickly grew beyond his expectations and by 2016 he toured French battlefields and cemeteries.
While visiting an antique shop in downtown Toledo, Nowak discovered several selected sheet music between 1917 and 1923 that were composed and published in Toledo. Because recording technology was primitive and expensive at the time, songs were sold as sheet music and shared through live performances.
In a bit of “divine guidance,” said Nowak, the perfect actors came to him. At the beginning of 2015 Janaye Ashman, then a 21-year-old music major at the University of Toledo, was on a parish ministry in St. Pius X. And so Nowak found his pianist and singer. She then helped him find another singer, her classmate Spencer J. Wilhelm. The stage was ready to recreate centuries-old Toledo pieces of music and record them for the first time.
Ashman had never played music like this before, and finding the right interpretation of a song she had never heard before turned out to be a fascinating challenge.
“You can’t look this stuff up on YouTube,” said Ashman. “It’s the grades.”
One song, “Off to the Front,” celebrates America’s entry into the war with praise to Uncle Sam and the patriotism of his young men; Another, “We are coming, Bill, to fetch you”, confidently predicts the fall of the German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm II, who is pejoratively called Kaiser “Bill”.
“It’s really a time capsule to hear the style of music from back then,” said Nowak. “It wasn’t all scratchy as we hear it now; it was live, that’s how they performed it.”
This desire to make the past as real and immediate as it is today led Nowak to clean up and colorize more than 180 historical photos, many of which were donated by Howard Sweet to Toledo Lucas County Public Library. He used whatever reference points he had, such as a WWI uniform in his collection, to ensure maximum accuracy. It took an average of 90 minutes to prepare each photo – “Do the math,” Nowak said with a laugh.
Throughout the film, Nowak encourages viewers to think of then and now by presenting the photos in their original black and white before they fade into color. It also contained footage he had made of Pennsylvania war reruns in 1984 for his Emmy Award-winning feature, “World War I: A Regional History”. At the time, he had sought realism, not by coloring the footage, but by deliberately shooting it on black and white film. The collage of colored photos and monochrome videos is accordingly haunting.
Aside from Sweet and Claus, Nowak interviewed Sgt. Joshua Mann, the Ohio National Guard’s official historian; Florence Lamouse, a battlefield leader in France; and Manon Bart, an interpretive guide from the American Battle Monuments Commission. The latter two contextualized the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, in which more than 1.2 million American soldiers fought and 24,000 died.
“The greatest battle America has fought to date, and most people cannot name it,” Nowak said. What greater evidence for Sweet’s claim that WWI veterans are “the forgotten people”?
A slightly different attitude prevails in France, where Nowak was only able to reserve a session with a battlefield leader on his eighth attempt due to the great demand.
“For the Europeans, the First World War is still so incredibly lively,” said Nowak. He has made it his business to change American attitudes in this direction, if only slightly. “I became a missionary to help people understand them.”
Nowak was driving south on I-75, just after the Collingwood exit, when he saw a car spinning wildly down the freeway. The impact shattered Nowak’s ribs, fractured his left leg, scarred his face, and plunged him into a three-day coma. The date was January 9, 1980 and he was 23 years old.
“I shouldn’t have lived, but I think it was too early,” said Nowak.
“Why me?” he wondered about it for years until he finally asked, “Why not?” He still had something to do, communities to give back to. His long-term injuries excluded federal service overseas, but not local service with the Ohio Military Reserve. Twenty years after joining, he is a lieutenant colonel.
Service runs in his blood – his father in World War II, his grandfathers in World War I (he included a few photos of them in the documentary), his great-great-grandfather in the Civil War and his seventh great-grandfather in the War of Independence. His time in the service increased his respect for “anyone who has served in any capacity”. In that sense, his documentary pays homage not just to WWI veterans, but to veterans everywhere.
“You don’t know what will happen when you raise your right hand and take the oath,” Nowak said. “That’s part of the experience. I tried to capture that. The guys didn’t know if it was a one-way ticket or if they would do paperwork in the back.” Sweet and Claus survived the war, but many of their comrades-in-arms were killed in gas strikes and the 1918 pandemic. The common need has tied a lifelong bond “that everyone who has served together in uniform understands”.
Since its release, Glimpses from the Great War has received several awards in international film competitions, including the Short, Tight & Loose Global Film Festival competition, the Spotlight Documentary Awards, the IndieFEST Film Awards and the Accolade Global Film Competition.
“How many things in life I would probably have said, forget it, but I don’t regret it,” said Nowak. “I hope I’ve told a story that honors our locals who have served.”
First published May 30, 2021, 10:50 a.m.