WAMG Interview: Mike Dorsey, Director of LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD - We Are Movie Geeks

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WAMG Interview: Mike Dorsey, Director of LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD

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Filmmaker Mike Dorsey with a photo of his grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel E.C. “Easy” Freeman

Interview conducted by Tom Stockman November 8th, 2011

Buchenwald was a German Nazi concentration camp built near Weimar Germany July 1937. It was the largest concentration camp on German soil and even though it was technically not an extermination camp, it was a site of an extraordinary number of deaths. Although it was highly unusual for the Germans to send Allied POWS to concentration camps, Buchenwald held a group of 168 aviators for two months in 1944.These soldiers were from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They all arrived at Buchenwald in August of 1944.All these airmen were in planes that had crash landed into Nazi-occupied France. Though initially rescued and hidden by French citizens, many were turned over to the Nazis by Jacques Desoubrie, a French traitor who was actually a double-agent for the Gestapo.Two explanations are given for them being sent to a concentration camp: first, that they had managed to make contact with the French Resistance, some were disguised as civilians, and they were carrying false papers when caught; they were therefore categorized by the Germans as spies, which meant their rights under the Geneva Convention were not recognized. The second explanation is that they had been categorized as Terrorfliger (“terror aviators”). The aviators were initially held in Gestapo prisons and headquarters in France. In August 1944, they and other Gestapo prisoners were jammed into boxcars and transported by train to Buchenwald. The hellish journey took five days, during which they received little food or water. They were subjected to the same sadistic treatment and abuse as other Buchenwald prisoners until October 1944, when a change in policy resulted in the aviators being moved to a regular POW camp. Nevertheless, two airmen died at Buchenwald.

This remarkable story, somewhat lost in the vast histories of World War II, is the basis for filmmaker Mike Dorsey’s extraordinary new documentary LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD. Featuring on-camera interviews with seven of the surviving Buchenwald airmen (including Dorsey’s own grandfather Lieutenant Colonel E.C. “Easy” Freeman, an American B-26 pilot), the documentary pieces together the testimonies of these brave men to tell a story that contains more drama and tension than most Hollywood films about the war. These veterans share their memories of the ordeal in a candid manner and one of the many strengths of LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD is how vivid their recollections are. They clearly describe how their airplanes were shot down, how they made their way to Paris, the details of their eventual capture, and the brutal conditions they endured at Buchenwald.  Being senior in rank, Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot Phil Lamason took control and instilled a level of military discipline and bearing. He defied the German’s order that his men work in the nearby munitions factory and refused, on behalf of his men, to help clean up after that factory was bombed by Allied planes. Dorsey’s film mixes these interviews with vintage photographs, archival films, and recently-shot footage of visits by several of the airmen to Buchenwald. LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD will play at the St. Louis International Film Festival Thursday, November 16th at 1pm at the Plaza Frontenac Theater. Mike Dorsey will be in attendance to answer questions and took the time for a recent phone interview about the project for We Are Movie Geeks.

Vintage group photo of the Allied airmen and a recent photo of the front gate of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

We Are Movie Geeks: Congratulations on LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD

Mike Dorsey: Thanks

WAMG: Is this your first feature-length documentary?

MD: No. it’s my third

WAMG: What were the first two?

MD: The first was a Hollywood history and the second was on the Manson Family and their murder spree in the 1960’s.

WAMG: What was your take on the Manson family?

MD: The focus on that was more of who their victims were and how they all came to be where they were when they were killed. It’s called THE SIX DEGREES OF HELTER SKELTER.

WAMG: What inspired you to tackle the subject of these Allied soldiers that were prisoners at Buchenwald?

MD: My grandfather was one of the airmen in the group.

WAMG: So he was one of the men interviewed?

MD: Yes, he was the first one I interviewed. I grew up with this story in my family.

P-38 pilot Joe Moser before his interview.

WAMG: So there were basically seven men that are profiled. When did you film these interviews?

MD: We’ve filmed them over the past two years. Most were filmed in 2010.

WAMG: So they’re still alive then?

MD: All of them, yes.

WAMG: Have you had a chance to travel with any of these men to various screenings of the film?

MD: Yes, so far five of the seven have been at public screenings. I just got back from New Zealand over the weekend where Phil Lammason, their commanding officer, lives. I was at a screening with him.

WAMG: He must be close to 90 I imagine.

MD: He’s 93 but he’s still sharp, still gets around fine, still lives alone on his farm.

WAMG: What do these men think of the final film that you’ve made?

MD: They love it. And also, none of them knew the complete story until they saw the movie. Each guy had his own experience but nobody had all the pieces of the puzzle.

WAMG: Why do you think this story is not better known? I certainly didn’t know Allied forces had been in concentration camps. I just assumed it was all Jews.

MD: That’s the first misnomer. Obviously that was the main group but at Buchenwald there were a lot of Russian POW’s and a lot of other groups were sent there. Resistance fighters, which is why these Allied guys ended up there. They were accused of being terrorists. Political prisoners, gays. Buchenwald held a very diverse group of prisoners.

WAMG: Why didn’t any of these men write their memoirs to get their stories out?

MD: Some of them have. There’s a few books out there about them. It’s all just a matter of getting the word out. If you self-publish something, how do you get people to read it?

WAMG: Do some of these men worry that people might not believe their story?

MD: They didn’t just worry about it, they experienced it. Especially when they got home. People had a hard enough time just believing tat the camps were real and even then, people believed that it was only Jews that were in the concentration camps so they would just say “Are you Jewish?”, and they would say they were an airman, and would hear “Oh, you don’t know where you were. You’re confused. You were in a POW camp; you just think you were in a concentration camp”.

WAMG: They didn’t call it a death camp though, didn’t they refer to it as a “labor camp”?

MD: Yes, Buchenwald was not a death camp. It was not a place where you were sent to be executed. Some people were executed there, especially some of the Russian POWs. A lot of them were shot there, but it was primarily a labor camp. There were factories there. Still, 50,000 people died there, but it mostly from malnutrition, disease, being murdered by other prisoners.

A guard tower at Buchenwald, with the crematorium in the background.

WAMG: Were you able to reunite some of these soldiers that hadn’t seen each other in decades?

MD: Yes, two of them got together at a screening we did in Washington and three of them got together with my grandfather in Florida a few weeks ago. So the ones that are well enough to travel have gotten around.

WAMG: Why were these particular prisoners not treated according to the Geneva Convention?

MD: What happened was, if you were a commando dropped behind enemy lines, and the Germans caught you, then they would say that you’ve voided your rights as of the Geneva Convention, that you will not be treated as a prisoner of war. You broke the rules. These guys were airmen that had been shot down. They were all hiding with the French Resistance. The Germans claimed they should have turned themselves in as soon as they crashed, but since they were hiding with the resistance, they were labeled saboteurs and terrorists and were treated the same way they would have treated a commando who purposely dropped in behind enemy lines. It’s because they were caught by the Gestapo and not by the regular military that that happened.

WAMG: There is an amazing amount of archival footage and photographs in THE LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD. Where did you get this? Did the German government grant you access to this stuff?

MD: Yes. First, the Buchenwald Memorial is a first class museum and they were incredibly helpful. They gave us a lot of the photographs of Buchenwald. The Steven Spielberg Archives gave us some footage. A lot of it came from a new website called Critical Past which specializing in high-definition transfers of public domain footage.

WAMG: I’m always a bit startled when I see color footage from World War Two.

MD: It’s amazing isn’t it? You start to see color footage more later in the war. All the early stuff, like the D-Day stuff, is always black and white but by the time they got into Germany in late ’44 or ’45 you start seeing more color.

WAMG: What happened to the Nazi double agent Jacques Desoubrie?

MD: He was hunted down, captured, put on trial, and executed.

WAMG: Good.

MD: Yeah, he got his.

WAMG: Do you think Hollywood will ever want to produce a narrative feature about this incident? There’s certainly enough drama.

MD: I think there’s definitely that possibility. It would be nice to see it. The story especially of the commanding officer, Phil Lamason, his refusal to work. That’s the kind of stuff screenwriters usually make up.

WAMG: Has Phil Lamason written down his memoirs?

MD: Of all of the airmen, Lamason is the most humble and the least exited to talk about it. He has the Distinguished Flying Cross, but he never shows it to anybody, he never wears it.

Squadron Leader Phil Lamason with director Mike Dorsey

WAMG: Were you a World War Two buff?

MD: Yes, definitely.

WAMG: Who narrated your film?

MD: One of my friends and coworkers here at Outdoor Channel who does some of our narration here.

WAMG: How long did it take you to make this film?

MD: Two years exactly.

WAMG: How did you get in touch with the Cinema St. Louis people.

MD: I submitted it and they accepted. I like St. Louis a lot and have family in Missouri so it seemed like a natural festival to get involved in.

WAMG: What’s next for Mike Dorsey?

MD: Right now I’m keeping my options open. We’re just riding this wave first, see where it goes, see where it’s distributed, and then I’ll figure out my next project down the road.

WAMG: Best of luck with THE LOST AIRMEN OF BUCHENWALD and we’ll see you Thursday, November17th at 1:00pm at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema for the screening. Thanks for your time

MD: Thank you.