Stephen Skeel was one of those kids who grew up obsessed with filmmaking -- the kind who'd re-create Raiders of the Lost Ark, shot by shot. But Skeel's passion project, which he discovered when he was 13, was much closer to home.
In a seventh-grade history class, assigned to research World War II, he interviewed a friend of his grandparents', a Horsham resident named Leslie Cruise Jr., one of the last surviving veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division that parachuted into France on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
It was just a homework assignment, "but it turned into much more than that," Skeel said. "I wrote a 60-page screenplay based on his story and shot the film every summer, vacation, and winter break with my friends. The final project was a scattered mess, with actors appearing at different ages, and camera-quality jumps."
So, he said, "I used the project as a learning experience and moved on.&rdquo
Now, Skeel, 21, of Gwynedd Valley, and Michael Antranaig Ayjian, 22, of Center City -- students at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and co-founders of a production company, 7 Wonders Cinema, in Gladwyne -- have revisited Cruise's story in a new documentary, All American.
The production values are a bit better this time around: They received help from the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, N.Y., where, of all the planes that flew on D-Day, the one that Cruise jumped from, a Douglas C-47 known as Whiskey Seven, has been preserved.
It's still airworthy, 70 years after Cruise jumped out of it, and so is Cruise: That both had survived so long seemed remarkable to the filmmakers.
The two began working on a new telling of Cruise's story, culminating in taking Cruise and the plane up in the air once again. (Though, at 92, Cruise opted not to jump out.)
Cruise -- a retired architect whose projects include what's now the Wells Fargo building at Fifth and Market Streets -- gets a steady stream of inquiries from history buffs and collectors, particularly around D-Day and Veterans Day, which is Friday.
He answers fewer of those letters each year, he conceded.
But for Skeel and Ayjian he agreed to tell the story again: how he lived in an orphanage in West Philadelphia from age 7 (his parents "lost the responsibility of parenthood somewhere along the way") and how he was galvanized by the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which "was like electricity going through the room." He decided immediately to join the Army Air Corps.
But it wasn't so easy. "I was determined to fly. But I went into three different recruiting offices to enlist and got turned down by all three. If I wasn't going to get into the Air Corps, the next thing is to be a paratrooper. You can fly, but you're not going to land -- at least not in a plane."
He did fly, as part of H Company, in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.
And he landed, first in Normandy on D-Day, to capture territory in support of the 156,000 Allied soldiers storming the beaches. Then he was part of the Market Garden campaign to invade Holland, and he was in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. He was part of successful campaigns and failed ones. He watched friends killed in front of him and was wounded in battle himself, requiring several operations on his hand, earning him a Purple Heart, and ending his time as a paratrooper.
So Cruise came home, studied at the University of Pennsylvania under the GI Bill, and settled down outside the city. He has two children, six grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. "It's a multiplication system," he said.
He didn't know Whiskey Seven was still operational until the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when he was reunited with the plane for a memorial flight in Normandy.
"With the shaking and the rattling of the plane, you wonder if it's going to stay together," he said. "Of course, when we were coming into Normandy on D-Day, we were getting shot at all over the place, and you were just hoping you didn't get hit before you got out."
Ayjian and Skeel got Cruise up in the C-47 once more, with some of his great-grandchildren. This time around, the actors portraying 82nd Airborne members were experienced reenactors involved with the warplane museum -- not middle school students.
Michael Antranaig Ayjian shooting footage for "All American." (7 WONDERS CINEMA)
The two are funding the project with profit from the film studio they started two years ago as college sophomores -- 7 Wonders has made commercials, music videos, and corporate videos for clients that include Expedia. Many of them didn't realize they were hiring a dorm-based enterprise.
"A lot of them didn't ask, and if they don't ask, I guess we didn't really say much," Skeel said. "One of our clients asked us after we were done shooting a commercial for them, 'How old are you guys?' I said, '19.' He basically fell out of his chair. He said, 'You're still in college? I didn't know that. If I did, I wouldn't have considered hiring you.'"
Now, they're planning to enter All American for consideration in the Tribeca Film Festival. If they get in, they hope to take Cruise to the festival with them.
They think it has a shot, as a different kind of Veterans Day tale.
"I think a lot of stories of war, people get lost by the wayside. Many of them are told from a tactical perspective -- a nonhuman perspective. People's voices get drowned out," Ayjian said. For them, Cruise's story is about his historic jump, but also his journey, from orphan to patriarch. "At the core, it's a story about family." ___
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This article was written by Samantha Melamed from The Philadelphia Inquirer and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.