Guest blogger: Tiana Stephens – Making connections from Korean War photos

A single photograph of a person—just one moment in someone’s lifetime—has a way of revealing things that are sometimes too complex for words. It conveys emotion, perspective, context, and evokes vivid memories, especially for the ones left behind when that person passes away.

He didn’t talk too much but he always greeted me with a drawn out “hell-o grand-daughter” through his mustache and long white beard. His voice was full and wise and came from the bottom of his pot belly with a slight southern twang. The most I knew of my grandfather, Crawford Flynn, was that he was good with his hands–thumb included–when it came to gardening, and that I had the special honor of sitting proudly beside him at the head of the table when I was too small to climb up there myself. I liked watching him make things in his workshop–wooden toys, instruments and eventually an entire miniature city, “Tiny Town,” for my grandma’s daycare. My brother and I would find scrap pieces of wood and swirl the layers of sawdust on the floor into designs while he worked. For many winters Tiny Town transformed into the North Pole and he was Santa to us grandkids and Smile Day Care kids at Christmas. We were all in awe of his talents. In the warmer season I was always amazed at his canopies of string beans, giant twisted cucumbers, dahlias and fluffy peonies bigger than my face. It was decades ago but the memories come back as colorful as his garden.

Two years ago on Independence Day I was watching a story on 13 WHAM news about a local woman who had inherited a very special collection of photos released by the Department of Defense that were taken during the Korean War. The reporter, Adam Chodak explained that Betty Perkins-Carpenter, a vet herself (among many other impressive accomplishments in her 83 years including an Olympic diving coach) was trying to connect veterans or families with the faces in the photos she calls her “gems.” The story flashed through some of the photos up close, and the camera moved over more and more stacks spread across a table.

These were not the type of wartime pictures that you see in history books, in the news on Veterans Day or when certain anniversaries come around. They were pictures of soldiers doing very ordinary things under not-so-ordinary circumstances, like posing with a dog or drinking pop. The story showed Betty on the phone calling small-town newspapers and people she found in the phone book whose names matched the names in the detailed captions printed on the back of the photos. She didn’t have any luck making connections during that story.

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In the two-minute news story I thought I saw something familiar. Maybe it was wishful thinking but in one of the photos there was a group of about a dozen soldiers and one man in the center of the of the group looked like my grandfather. I checked the list of names that was posted online with the story. No Crawford Flynn. I watched again a few days later on my computer, trying to pause the video just right on what I thought I saw. I told myself there was no way that out of the hundreds of faces that it could be so. No way. I’m from Colorado and my grandfather was originally from North Carolina, so how could a picture of him surface in New York? I dismissed the idea partly because of the low probability that it was him and partly out of fear of disappointment that it was not.

A little more than a year later I was going through a large brown accordion file that I keep old family photos in. The oldest photos are tucked safely in envelopes inside of folders and separated by family (Wong for my mother, Flynn for my father). I came across some pictures that my dad had given me when my grandfather passed away in 2005. Two small and tattered pictures were of him when he served in the Air Force during the Korean War. I immediately thought again of Betty’s story and her picture collection. I could still see the image in my head and decided to make arrangements to see the photo in person. I was nervous that I would be let down if it was not him in the photo but I knew I would regret it if I never saw it for myself.

I came to her house alone on a mild night in October, ringing the bell from outside the porch then reluctantly stepping inside the porch to knock on the door of the house. She answered with the same enthusiasm I saw on the TV story, greeting me with a hug and then leading me through the quiet house, explaining some of the various artifacts from around the world and how she came into possession of them before we reached her office. She had so many wonderful stories to tell that I soon worried I would disappoint her if I was not related to the man in the picture.

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We walked over to a bureau in her office and Betty picked up a manila envelope with the words “Our Gems” written with a marker on the front. She laid the photograph down carefully in front of me and I put my hands up to my mouth and gasped. I immediately knew that it was him! His posture, profile, hair—everything about him was so recognizable. We jumped up and down and cried with joy “it’s him, it’s him, oh my gosh, look at that!” I put my small photos next to the 8×10 for comparison. The images almost mirrored each other. It was an incredible discovery—Betty always says “she was all goose bumps” when we talk about it today and we still can’t believe our own story when we tell it.

On my next visit back to Denver, I brought this gem to my grandmother, father, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins. The image brought out so many incredible stories that I had never heard before. Wonderful stories about how my grandmother met my grandfather when he was stationed in Japan following the war. Nobuko Ikeda was a stunning, petite young lady working in a coffee shop on the Air Force base. She naturally attracted many admirers who would learn after waiting in a long line for coffee that she didn’t want anything to do with courters—let alone American ones. She was hard-working and humble, from a well respected Japanese family and she said she never wanted people to think of her as “a girl who goes with GI’s.” Yet, somehow my grandfather was able to convince her to marry him and then she did eventually “go with him”…all the way back to the United States.

I keep these family stories in my heart. But it’s the photographs—the illustrations from the years so far before my own—that I can hold and see, that will be my most treasured possessions until it’s time to pass them down to my own grandchildren.

When my grandfather died, I regretted not being brave enough to ask him about his experiences both in Korea and Vietnam. Was he scared? Did war change him and somehow was it worth it if it led him to meet my grandma? Now, having this extraordinary photo of him—obtained through extraordinary means—I found something that I didn’t know was lost.

The night I took the photo home, I knew the next thing I needed to do was to help Betty find more families that might be able to make the same incredible connection that I did. I knew that the picture collection needed to be available where the world could see it, that they should be scanned and posted online.

Betty and I talked about what we could do to make this happen, and I was able to eventually connect with Chuck Rudd at Kodak Alaris and a wonderful team of experts who were just as excited as Betty and I about the project. Kodak Alaris found a way to safely scan the pristine collection of glossy black and white 8×10 photos—nearly 200 of them—front and back!

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In Rochester New York–where everyone knows everyone–word travels fast and good stories travel faster. I’m happy to report that the Democrat and Chronicle heard about the project and is hosting an online gallery of Betty’s entire collection of photos, complete with the captions on the back complete with dates and locations and even names and hometowns on some.

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Words can’t describe how thankful I am to have connected with Betty and this photo, Kodak Alaris and the Democrat and Chronicle. I hope that through this project many more families, widows or veterans themselves of the “Forgotten War” will be able to make a connection with a photo and perhaps remember stories that will be passed along to future generations. After all, our story begins with the stories of those who came before us. And a picture is worth so much more than 1,000 words.

4 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Tiana Stephens – Making connections from Korean War photos

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