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A CT Filmmaker Explores the Korean War

Sixty years have now passed since the shooting stopped on the Korean Peninsula. The body count remains stunning.

More than 36,000 dead American soldiers; another 103,000 wounded, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. South Korean military casualties totaled 217,000; their civilian deaths upwards of one million.

On the other side of the bitter ledger, North Korea counted an estimated 406,000 soldiers killed, while some 600,000 of their civilians died. Chinese casualty lists included 600,000 names.

A new documentary by Connecticut filmmaker Conor Timmis, Finnigan's War, is in part an attempt to put a human face to those horrifying statistics. He succeeds by preserving at least some of the memories of Americans who fought and died in that long-ago war.

Timmis, 33, spent several years on what he says he expected to be a film focusing on his grandfather, John Finnigan, a young American soldier who was killed in Korean War combat.

Instead, Timmis' film turned into something more.

"It became more about these other soldiers," he says, about how the Korean conflict was "the first truly 'All-American' war" in which African-Americans and Native Americans and Asian-Americans fought alongside white Americans as equals for the first time in U.S. history.

Talking to one group of veterans and their families led to connections with other vets and the stories of their experiences and the terror and the hardship for the soldiers and the families they left behind.

"Everybody's the same color when the bullets start to fly," says one black veteran in Timmis' 54-minute documentary.

Another, his voice shaking, recalls killing a North Korean soldier who was stealing communication wire from American troops. Telling it as though it had happened yesterday, this elderly and fragile man explained how the bullets from his Thompson submachine gun blew off the top of his enemy's skull.

When he came up to the body, the American realized it was that of a man in his 50s, and he remembers thinking, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"I felt real bad about that," the veteran tells the camera, tears in his eyes. "It's a bad feeling."

The journey that Finnigan's War takes you on includes visits to the homes of families of soldiers (like Timmis' grandfather) who never made it out alive.

One fascinating segment concerns a Connecticut motorcycle club, the "Borinqueneers." The club's designation is derived from the original Taino name for the island of Puerto Rico (Borinquen) and was the nickname for the 65th Infantry Regiment, the only active-duty, segregated, Latino military unit in the history of the United States.

The regiment served in World War I and II and in the Korean War.

"These men, they're not forgotten," one club member says. "We want to bring them honor."

There are also interviews with living Medal of Honor winners, like Holocaust survivor Tipor Rubin, a Hungarian boy who was so grateful for his rescue from a Nazi concentration camp that he promised God he would "become a GI Joe."

Rubin fulfilled that promise, not only during combat but later in a North Korean prison camp where he saved dozens of other GI Joes by stealing food and medicine from their captors.

Timmis is both an actor and the director of previous documentaries, including Kreating Karloff, about the master of monster characters, Boris Karloff.

But Finnigan's War became something of an obsession for Timmis.

"I spent three years of my life, full time, making that documentary," he now says.

Initially, Timmis funded the filming with his own money, but that ran out all too quickly. He says he solicited support from what seemed like "every company in America" without any luck at all.

That's when he got the idea of contacting South Korean firms to ask if they'd be interested in helping to fund a documentary about American veterans of that war. Almost at random, Timmis sent letters out and got a response almost at once from one company, and boldly asked for a $50,000 contribution.

"A few days later, I had the $50,000," he recalls. "It was a miracle, really."

One of the more interesting techniques of Timmis' film is the use of comic-book style drawings by Justin Case to illustrate some of the stories of wartime action. Those scenes are narrated by Mark Hamill, often reading from the official commendations for combat citations like the Medal of Honor.

At first, these sequences of drawings feel cartoonish; but that sensation soon fades. What remains is a feeling of astonishment at what some of these men actually did in the midst of mind-blowingly brutal combat, most often to save their fellow soldiers. No picture, whether it's on film or drawn by an artist with pen and ink, can convey the true horror of those moments.

Timmis' quest to honor the memory and memories of Americans who fought and died in Korea lasted three years, just as long as the war itself.

What surprised him most about making the film, he now says, was discovering "the sense of service these people had back then."

Some of the veterans he interviewed had fought in World War II and volunteered or were called back to fight in Korea. A few even volunteered for service in Vietnam.

That came as a shock, says Timmis, for someone like himself who knew virtually nothing about the Korean conflict.

By the time he was finished, he adds, "Their sacrifice and patriotism kind of blew my mind."

 

ghladky@hartfordadvocate.com

Follow @GregoryBHladky on Twitter

 

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