Alabama photographer creates 'Portraits of Honor' for state's World War II veterans

Photographer Jeff Rease is in a race against time capturing the stories and images of aging World War II heroes.

Posted: Dec 29, 2020 9:20 PM
Updated: Dec 30, 2020 12:09 PM

In 2020, coronavirus took the lives of many Americans, including some of our heroes who fought in World War II.

As another year passes, only 330,000 of the original 16 million sent off to serve are still alive today.

For the last year, photographer Jeff Rease has traveled around Alabama and a few other states to capture their images and stories in a race against time.

Rease is trying to make sure their brave service is documented and preserved.

These are stories you won't find in history books, like the one about Jim Feezel of Decatur, who was the first to drive his tank through the front gates at Dachau, a Nazi prison camp, freeing thousands.

Rease happened to capture Feezel's portrait and story just before he passed away this year.

"When people hear that (Feezel's story), they just kind of perk up and say that's an important moment in history," noted Rease.

Rease donated the portrait of Feezel to his family, who displayed it at his funeral and obituary. The family described it as the perfect image of their father, who they treasure as a great man and war hero.

"In that photograph, my dad was peaceful and happy looking," said Feezel's daughter, Debbie. "In his (Feezel's) mind, it was just God putting him in the place where he needed to be doing what he needed to do."

Feezel is a face of a hero we know, but what about those heroes of WWII who are dying at the rate of 300 per day, that we don't know?

That is where Rease has stepped in by creating his "Portraits of Honor" project. He's finding these aging heroes and capturing their images and stories before they are all gone.

"To have a chance to talk to them and just meet them, you know, kind of a fascinating thing, kind of meeting the heroes," a smiling Rease said.

For Rease, this is a personal mission, not just because his father, uncles and his son served in the military, but also because he did not.

"Well, maybe it is (the reason for the project). I am not feeling guilty about (not serving) it, but just thinking, kind of, yeah, I wish I had (served), said Rease. "When I get to hear those stories and share that with other people, there's nothing like it."

So far, Rease has taken photos and recorded stories of more than 105 veterans of WWII. He is paying for it mostly out of his own pocket, but he also has started a GoFundMe page for those who want to contribute. 

Next up? A potential book deal. Rease said a publisher has contacted him looking for his top 10 heroes for a potential "Portraits of Honor" book.

But until then, Rease is moving at "shutter" speed to tell the stories of more WWII veterans before it is too late. And he is not letting the ongoing battle against coronavirus stop him.

"I felt if there's any way I can do it safely by keeping a distance and sanitize, being outdoors, we can still do this," said Rease. "As long as I can find veterans who are able to sit for a photograph and interview, I'll keep doing it."

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