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Local man receives grant to document stories of World War II veterans

NATCHEZ — Time to hear the stories of the men and women who served the country during World War II is running out, and a local man is working to ensure those stories are preserved.

Mark LaFrancis has always had an affinity and great respect for WWII veterans. His father, uncle and father-in-law served in the war, and he has had a desire for many years to do something that would honor and celebrate their service to the country.

Last year, LaFrancis had an opportunity to interview two veterans of the war, nurse Josephine Kepke and Naval Seabee Harold Gardner. The interviews resulted in the production of a documentary that only intensified his desire to honor those veterans.

“It is incredible the recall these vets have about their service a half century ago,” he said. “I have been honored just to sit in their presence and listen to their experiences, their stories and their incredible journeys.”

After asking local contacts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Natchez to help him, LaFrancis wrote a grant application to the Mississippi Humanities Council, which approved the funding in early August for LaFrancis to coordinate the project and interview approximately 20 veterans from around the state.

“Even if the grant funding is exhausted and we find other WWII veterans, we will interview them anyway,” he said.

The goal of the program is to create oral histories that will be archived at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, but LaFrancis said he is also looking to use the interviews for documentaries that can be shown in the veterans’ communities and to provide them with DVDS of the interviews.

Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the National WWII museum in New Orleans have also expressed interest in the project, he said.

Thus far, LaFrancis has been able to complete four interviews, and he said the final project will include interviews with a German prisoner of war; a glider pilot who had several near death experiences; an aide to a U.S. admiral in the Pacific; a civil rights leader who served; a survivor of three wars and several veterans who personally were involved in the D-Day invasion.

LaFrancis has been able to connect with veterans through the VFW and through its co-coordinator, Jennifer Presley Walton, who is the secretary for the Mississippi Gulf Coast honor flight program, which transports veterans to the national WWII war memorial in Washington, D.C.

Those who wish to contact LaFrancis about the project can do so by email at gmarklafrancis@hotmail.com.