This is how one photographer is honoring veterans of World War II and Korea, one senior living facility at a time
On Oct. 14, 1942, Vito Murgolo faced death.
The U.S. Marine, then 22 years old, was stationed on the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, when – less than a year after America entered World War II – the Battle of Guadalcanal broke out. Suddenly, the sergeant’s airfield was under attack. Shells exploded. His comrades took cover.
But Murgolo didn’t.
Instead, he ran to two warplanes, started them up and somehow maneuvered them to a runway – allowing his pilots to hop in, touch off the ground and defend the base.
When the firefight ended, Murgolo was still alive. He ultimately earned a silver star, one of the most prestigious military honors, for his bravery.
And now, more than 75 years later, Murgolo will be honored again, this time with a framed portrait on the wall of his senior living home.
Murgolo and nine other veterans had their pictures taken earlier this month at Belmont Village Senior Living, in Rancho Palos Verdes, for a permanent gallery honoring their combat service. But the photos, set to be unveiled on Veterans Day, are not for a new exhibit. Rather, they are part of an update to just one of dozens across the country. For the past decade, in fact, Belmont Village — a chain of senior living facilities — has set up exhibits at more than 30 locations commemorating their residents who served during World War II and the Korean conflict. Those walls of honor are at facilities throughout the Southland, including in Hollywood Hills, Westwood, Rancho Palos Verdes, Aliso Viejo and Sherman Oaks.
“It’s an honor for me to be a participant,” said Burt Scholin, a 91-year-old Korean War veteran, who will have a portrait at the Rancho Palos Verdes facility. “I think it’s terrific. I’m looking forward to seeing the artistry of the pictures.”
Twelve years ago, Thomas Sanders was a college student — the same age as Murgolo was in 1942 — with a simple assignment: photograph veterans of the second world war.
But he didn’t just snap a few photos and run. He talked to the veterans, heard their stories and became inspired. Inspired to travel the country and document veterans, both their faces and their stories.
Eventually, he caught the eye of Belmont Village officials, who commissioned him to do the yeoman’s work of photographing their residents, a 10-year project that has resulted in Sanders amassing a portfolio of 600 portraits and, in 2010, publishing “The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of WWII.”
“I’ve literally photographed thousands of veterans since I was 22 years old,” Sanders, now 34 and a Bay Area resident, said, noting that in some ways the most positive feedback comes from his subjects’ relatives. “It’s almost for their families in a way. It’s sort of like honoring their dad or their grandparent before they pass away.”
But that fatal fact, that people age and die, prolongs Sanders’ work. And it’s why the exhibits, like the wars themselves, are constantly changing.
“We refresh the galleries every few years or so,” Sanders said. “The veterans pass away and it’s time to honor the new veterans living at the community.”
And that’s what brought him to Rancho Palos Verdes on Sept. 7.
Over the course of a few hours, Sanders led the veterans through their photo shoots. Some wore parts of their old military uniforms; others held wartime photos of themselves. As he worked, Sanders was kinetic, constantly moving around the room, searching for the right angles. He was talkative, too, trying to get his subjects to open up about their lives and experiences.
One of Sanders’ subjects was Ila — pronounced eye-lah — Gerding. Now 92, Gerding served as a civilian nurse during World War II. Her husband was a sailor.
“That was a popular war, so we were all eager to be some part of it,” she said.
Gerding, who gets around in a wheelchair but is still robust and vibrant, was cheery throughout the shoot, chatting with the photographer and anyone else who stopped by for a visit.
“It’s quite something,” she said of the photo shoots. “I haven’t had much attention lately – not at this age.
“It’s kind of interesting what’s going on,” she added. “I didn’t realize I was going to be a celebrity.”
Then there’s Scholin, who served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1952. He drove trucks during his time in the military, hauling everything from troops to fuel to ammunition.
“I had an experience that I’m very proud of,” Scholin said. “I was most fortunate because no one shot at me, nor did I shoot at anyone else, but I was close enough so that I know what war is.”
Scholin, with a full head a gray hair, was, like the the other veterans, bright and engaging.
“It’s an honor for me to be a participant,” he said. “I think it’s terrific. I’m looking forward to seeing the artistry of the pictures.”
Murgolo, now 99, was one of the last veterans to sit for his portrait. Though in a wheelchair and with a right hand that slightly trembles, he’s easy to recognize as a military man. He’s slender, but not frail; his handshake, despite the quiver, is firm. His mind is still sharp and, he says, his will is strong.
He said he was happy to participate in the photo project because it helps ensure that veterans aren’t forgotten.
“Thousands of men and women (served), and some of them paid the ultimate price to keep America strong and protected,” Murgolo said. “Don’t take too lightly the freedom you enjoy, because somebody paid the price for it.”
It is a sentiment shared by those who house him and his fellow veterans.
“To be able to capture this moment for them is just absolutely thrilling,” said Miki Lamm, the executive director for Belmont Village’s Rancho Palos Verdes facility. “It’s just synonymous with what Belmont Village does. We honor our residents, and this is one of the ways that we do that.”
For Sanders, the Rancho Palos Verdes photo shoot was his last of 2018.
But next year, he’ll be back at it — travelling to different Belmont Village senior homes, listening to the hard-won wisdom of his subjects and thanking them for their service.
And immortalizing, with his camera, the lives of veterans — before it’s too late.