When Hays World War II veteran Russ Clark opened an advance copy of the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine, he says he asked his son, "Who’s this old man’s picture in here that you’ve got my name on?"
Clark, 96, is one of almost three dozen World War II veterans from around the world whose portraits are featured in "The Last Voices of World War II."
The pictures in the 50-page article were all shot by Clark’s son, Robert Clark, a 1979 graduate of Hays High School and a longtime National Geographic photographer.
In fact, the idea for June’s cover story originated in Hays, Robert Clark said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon from his apartment in New York City.
He said the whole thing started, in a way, because he went to coffee with his dad at the Burger King in Hays.
"There was Bob Schmidt, who just passed away a little while ago, and there’s about 12 guys in the coffee group, that go there every day for an hour or so," Clark said. "As I kept making trips back to Hays, there are just fewer and fewer in the coffee group. A lot of them had been in World War II, and I just started asking some of them questions about their being in the service."
With the 75th anniversary of the war’s end coming up in September, it was the perfect opportunity for a story, said Clark, who got his start shooting sports photos in high school for The Hays Daily News and has been shooting for National Geographic since 1995.
"The Last Voices of World War II" article is Clark’s 51st for the magazine. All the pictures in the story, except the historical photos, are Clark’s.
"A lot of older people don’t get a lot of respect, they get ignored by media," Clark said, describing his approach to the photos. "I wanted to just kind of slow down and do a dignified portrait of them and then to hear their stories."
Clark traveled to England, Germany, Russia, Japan and all over the United States for the pictures, with different journalists in each country writing the stories.
He wanted the portraits shot the same way so they’d be interesting in the layout.
"So in a way, whether they’re Japanese, or German, or Russian or British or American, it’s like they’re completely different people, yet they all share this common story that shaped their lives, and that in a lot of ways defined their lives," Clark said. "I wanted them to be similar individually, in the technique that was used, but I also knew that they were so varied and different, that the differences would come out in their stories."
Clark used the same lens and camera to capture each person’s image.
"It was a 100 millimeter macro because I wanted to get close and have it be very clear and very crisp," he said. "And the lighting was pretty simple, mostly just one or two strobes on the pictures."
One veteran, now a painter in New York City, survived six years in a German concentration camp after being taken from his hometown of Prague.
Another, holding a model airplane, was in Belgium in wartime intelligence for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA.
Still another is the last Marine living, now in Colorado, who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.
Russ Clark, a Ness City native, was initially rejected by the military for a hernia, but he had it repaired so he could serve.
Russ was a machinist mate in the U.S. Navy in the engine room aboard the USS Farquhar, destroyer escort No. 139. About 20 years old at the time, he was stationed during most of the war in the North Atlantic, including with the aircraft carriers noted for sinking the last German submarine of the war. Russ was discharged from the service in 1945.
"I would guess that most of the ones I knew are gone," he said of the other crewmen on his ship, speaking recently from his home. "I’ll be 96 years old in June, so they’re all old men."
He came back after the war and married Dora Lou Lamer, daughter of the Lamer Hotel family, and opened the men’s clothing store, The Village Shop, operating on Main Street from 1963 until 1990.
Robert Clark was in Hays about four months ago for his dad’s photo shoot.
"It was taken here, right at our house," said Russ Clark of the session with his son. "He took a lot of snaps. It took longer than I thought it was going to take."
Russ’ portrait is in his VFW Post 6240 cap, more evidence of how the story idea took root.
"It kind of came from my mom asking me to shoot a portrait of my dad," Robert said. "My mom died two summers ago, come June, and she’d asked me to do a picture of my dad with his VFW cap on for the wall at the VFW. I never got around to it, and I hadn’t been home for a while, and then I finally shot it."
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert said, about 350 veterans die each day, another reason for the article.
"I hope tons of people who see this will sit down with their parent or grandparent and put a tape recorder in front of them, or their iPhone, and just record some stories of their parents’ personal history," Robert said. "Talk to veterans that they know, they’re a time capsule. Everybody’s story is interesting."