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A Look at AARP's 'Letters From D-Day' Video Series Skip to content

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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at 'Letters From D-Day'

Bob Edwards talks with AARP's TJ Cooney about the origins of the video series

D Day landing craft

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Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today.

Bryan Cranston: Today was declared a holiday by Eisenhower, in memoriam of the boys who paid the supreme sacrifice. It was a simple requiem but with plenty of meaning behind it. By my sweet, love and kisses, Dom.

Bob Edwards: That was a letter written by Private First Class Dominic "Dom" Bart, then a 32 year old infantryman. PFC Bart, who was with the first wave that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6th 1944, was recounting to his wife Mildred, the horrific experience of war and survival. This week marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The invasion of Normandy was one of the boldest and most important military efforts of World War II, leading to the liberation of western Europe, and helping to create the world as it exists today.

AARP is paying tribute to those who played a role on that historical day by sharing their stories with a feature in AARP Bulletin and in a three-part digital series, 'Letters From D-Day,' on AARP's YouTube channel. The series, narrated by Bryan Cranston, features recently unearthed letters from service members, dictated over never before seen footage of the war. Joining us today is AARP studio's TJ Cooney, producer and director of 'Letters From D-Day,' for a behind the scenes discussion about the origins of the video series. Welcome to the program.

TJ Cooney: Thank you for having me.

Bob Edwards: How did this story come about?

TJ Cooney: This story originally came about as an article in the AARP Bulletin, 'Letters From D-Day.' I worked with Mike Hedges, who's the editor of the projects, and Andrew Carroll who runs the War Letter Project where they basically have the archive of all of the letters going back to the Revolutionary War. It just seemed like a real no-brainer for us to do this project. The letters were all extremely compelling and they spoke for themselves. I saw it as a real great creative challenge to bring them to life, using original archival footage, but not only using this archival footage, I wanted to make the footage itself special.

So this was the first time ever that this footage was scanned in at 4K resolution, which is, you know, for people at home who are listening, that's like, you know, you've heard of UHD TVs, and 4K TVs, it's the highest resolution you can get on the market right now. And something I recommend you watch on the largest screen you can get your hands on, because it's really seeing the battle in a way that no one's ever seen before. The project just really came along because the stories were so compelling. I saw it as a great creative challenge for our studio's team, and we really pulled it off. I couldn't be happier with how we finished.

Bob Edwards: In reading through the letters in the archives, what were some of the most memorable?

TJ Cooney: So, I set up some parameters for letters that should be eligible first before we actually finished going through the ones that we wanted to get. My main requirement was that the soldier needed to survive the war. I always wanted to end the videos on a high note, you know, X-person ended up going home and starting a family. I didn't want these videos to end on a low note, which is hard for a D-Day. So I read through probably 30 or 40 letters until we finally landed on these three, and something that was super memorable for me was once I'd picked those three, part of my vetting process is I always want to try to contact next of kin just to confirm some stories and also do you have any photos or video or your loved one, you know, that we could use as part of the piece.

So I was working my way to tracking down these people, and for Dominic Bart's episode, which is the first wave episode, he was on one of the Higgins boats that landed in Normandy. I found his grandson Chris, just by pure chance. And I didn't have an email address for him, I didn't have a home address, but I found a phone number. Gave him a call, and I said, "Hi, I'm looking for the grandson of Dominic Bart, US Army veteran. I have a letter that he wrote here from the War Letters Project, and I'm just trying to find a family member. If you can please give me a call back."

Within like 30 seconds, I get an immediate call back from Chris, and he's like, "Oh my God. That's my grandfather. Do you have the letter?" And I said, "Yeah." And he was like, "The letter has been out of our family for at least the last decade. It's just gotten lost, you know, my aunt who submitted the letter has passed away. And it's just kind of got lost in family history, and everybody was aware the letter existed, but they didn't know where it was." So this video project has -- yes, we've been able to tell these powerful stories, but it's been really rewarding for me personally to reconnect this family to a really valuable piece of their history.

Bob Edwards: Now these were letters written to loved ones by the soldiers. You had to be moved by some of these.

TJ Cooney: Absolutely. The one that Jim Martin wrote, at the very end was -- it gave me goosebumps because it humanized his experience so much when he said send him another box of candy. Because that, for me, brought me to a place where you are without, right? You are just going through a very traumatic experience in your life. You're in a foreign country. You've just seen a lot of your friends die, and a box of candy is something that will bring you joy. Where for me and everybody else here, I can go down the street and buy candy no problem, but when you're on the frontlines of a war, candy is one of like the highlights of your day, right?

And I just read this insanely beautiful piece, beautifully describing what it was like to fly in and to jump and the emotions, it just really brought me there, and those were all great, but send another box of candy, you just like hit home in a way I was not expecting.

Bryan Cranston: Strings of places where night filled the air. About 30 inches off the ground, a mortar shell plopped down about 15 feet away and threw me flat on my face. It didn't take me long to clear out of there. One of the sergeants that I called out of the field of fire, until he suddenly stopped and pointed out the muzzle flashes of the 88, which was in an open trench position. We each put a clip of ammo into it. Finally we got to our objective, which was a bridge in front of a high hill. A tank crew picked me up and I stayed with them until the next day. Write soon, and send another box of candy. Love, James.

Bob Edwards: Sadly, some of these letters never reached their families, so now all these years later they're seeing them for the first time.

TJ Cooney: Yeah, I mean there are some people, you know, the letters have been in the families but they were either not distributed properly, you know, maybe a granddaughter or a son or somebody had the letters, but they just didn't send them out. And now that we're bringing them to life, some of these family members are hearing these stories for the very first time. Part of our research working with the National Archives of finding these documents, which they didn't have, it's like now they're taking this letter they may not have seen, these random stories that have been told through their family history, and now we're bringing it to life. Their minds are just kind of like melting right now. So it's been really a joy to just say hey, watch this video and we're just getting these amazing responses.

Bob Edwards: What's the importance of us hearing these first-hand accounts?

TJ Cooney: For me personally, I think that it humanizes this battle that has been taught in history books to children for decades now, you know? You're connecting faces, names, and a voice to a really important moment in human history, in my opinion, the most epic battle in human history. For me, being a storyteller, hearing the personal accounts of these moments hit home with me and stick with me more than just hearing about, you know, the bigger picture of ten thousand foot strategy of the battle, when I hear about the little guy who had to survive and get from point A to point B. Those are the stories that I remember, not necessarily what happened with Eisenhower's strategy or what the president wanted to do at the time. I think about Jay. I think about Dom. I think Jim, now with this battle. And that is what I hope what sticks with people is that they remember those individuals that were, you know, just played little parts in the role of this war, but extremely important parts.

Bob Edwards: How did you decide it was a three-part series?

TJ Cooney: So I'm a history buff, and for anybody that is aware of like the battle, the invasion of Normandy, or Operation Overlord, there were three key components. Invasion from the land, invasion from the sea, and invasion from the air. And all three of those components took on very unique strategy for the battle. And it was a time when multiple nations and multiple branches had to work together, you know? The Army Air Corps, the army and the navy at the time. So for me, I wanted to try to paint a complete picture of the battle, but by using first-person accounts. So, if you were to read or watch or listen to these first-person accounts, you learn these stories but you also get perspective on the bigger battle at hand.

Bob Edwards: Was there a particular piece of the series that stood out for you?

TJ Cooney: I think seeing the finished product, you know, I went into this thinking I knew what my favorite episode was, and now it's been very hard for me to pick one because they have all been very visually unique. I think what's really stood out for me though, when I watched all three back is the final episode, because of Bryan Cranston's performance. When you listen to his performance, it's just so real, you know? Like I felt like I was actually hearing Jay talk, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to go with a talent like Bryan who was able to just bring to life these three very unique people from coming at this moment from three very different perspectives.

When we were in the booth listening to his performance, you know, I was getting goosebumps listening to what he was saying, and I thought when we had presented Jay's letter, I kind of thought what performance I was going to get of him, and he just brought so much more soul to it than I was expecting. So now when I go back and watch all three, I want to watch them in order and I love finishing with the Jay episode last, because I felt like it was just full of heart and soul, and it just hit home with me more than I was ever anticipating.

Bob Edwards: Yeah, how did Bryan Cranston get involved?

TJ Cooney: So, our pitch to him literally was, "Here's three amazing letters from D-Day, we'd love for you to narrate them. Just read them." And the letters spoke for themselves. Bryan, within 24 hours of the request, said, "Let's do it." And I think that speaks to the kind of person he is, and that he wanted to bring these super important people to life. Not fictional characters, real people that went through real tragedy. So really that's it, you know? Then it just came down to getting him in the booth and bringing them to life. I credit these soldiers for selling it, because the stories were just so compelling.

Bob Edwards: How'd you feel directing a big star like that?

TJ Cooney: It was rewarding. I mean, really Bryan was super humble and cooperative. You know, he wanted to -- he had a lot of questions about where is this guy from, do you mind if I give him a bit of an accent, you know, oh where's he from? The Midwest or Florida, like you know, so these are more like standard accents and just really just brought it to life with a little bit of a southern accent but in a unique way for it, so that when you listen to all three different performances, it genuinely sounds like three different people. You know it's Bryan Cranston, but there's like a different soul behind it.

Bob Edwards: Was it his artillery burst sound effect that won the audition?

TJ Cooney: Definitely his after first take, I said you know, that's your burp, burp, but that's like my weakest effect of like making a machine gun sound. I said, "It was brilliant, you know, where did that come from?" And he was like, "I don't know, it just like kind of came to me." And I was like, "Can we do it again?" And he just did it again with more gravitas. And that was really it. I mean that really took little direction. He was just like, "Well where do you want me to go with this?" And I was, "Do you, you know? You have the resume, you have the experience to do like way more than what we're asking here. Just be yourself." And of course with such a little sound bite and a little moment, he just added another like layer to it that was not expected.

Bob Edwards: Well let's give it a listen.

Bryan Cranston: My sweet Mildred, in the far away distance one could hear the rumble of the artillery and the brrrep brrrep of machine gun fire. The elements were at their worst.

Bob Edwards: The series captures the rare and unique video footage. Tell us about that.

TJ Cooney: Yeah so, there's a couple different angles here, so we worked with the National Archives in sourcing the footage for this project. We really wanted to scan the original 35mm reels that were on the battlefield that day. That was really important to me for a couple reasons. One, it's more superior quality. Two, the reels are in very good condition, because they've been locked up literally in a vault for the last 75 years. And because they're in such a good condition, you'd get a much higher quality scan out of them and just better fidelity. So that is one of the selling points of just get people to turn their heads to this project because you're seeing this important moment in human history in such a fidelity that really brings it to life that you weren't expecting.

Bob Edwards: How can people watch?

TJ Cooney: Pretty easily. Just go to YouTube.com/aarp. All three pieces are going to be on there for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and they'll be up there in perpetude. You can always go back and watch. I recommend to people who are listening to share these stories with their children and their grandchildren. Primarily so that they can have an understanding of what happened 75 years ago and the sacrifice these people went through for our country. And I really hope that we were able to tell this story in such a way that impacts them.

Bob Edwards: TJ Cooney, producer and director of Letters From D-Day. The letters for this series were shared courtesy of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University and director Andrew Carroll. The Center for American War Letters is an invaluable repository of the words of Americans at war. For more information, or to share war letters with the center, please visit www.warletters.us. To watch the series on AARP's YouTube channel, go to YouTube.com/aarp.

It's not just millennials who are finding it difficult to lift themselves out of student loan debt, turns out it's growing at alarming rates among adults 50 and over according to a new report from AARP. By the end of last year, older Americans owed nearly 290 billion dollars in collective debt. They have carried some of that debt for over 30 years, since their own college days, born on career choices that not always allowed for paying off high-interest loans. Others have borrowed to finance their higher education later in life, either motivated by professional development, self-fulfillment, or a career change.

But the growing loan balances among this group are highly attributed to parents or grandparents helping their children pay for college by co-signing loans or carrying the debt on their own. It has become an intergenerational burden and snaring a growing number of older adults and disrupting the retirement plans of many of them. There is some good news though. In many cases, co-signers for a private loan can be removed from the loan, if the borrower makes a series of on-time payments. The lesson here, responsibility pays off. For more information, visit aarp.org/money.

For years, medical experts have touted the benefits of a high fiber low-fat diet to minimize the risk of breast cancer. Now the results of a major breast cancer prevention study are the first to prove that the idea of a healthy diet is not just food for thought. It's conclusive and a launch pad to other research that might better indicate how to use lifestyle factors to reduce the risk of breast cancer mortality. The study of nearly 50,000 post-menopausal women ages 50 to 79, who didn't have breast cancer, took 20 years.

Researchers broke them into two groups, where one group upped consumption of fruits and veggies, and were tasked with reducing total fat intake to 20% of their total daily calories. The control group ate as usual. After eight and a half years, the women who ate less fat and more fiber, were 21% less likely to have died from breast cancer. They were also 15% less likely to have died from any cause, after a breast cancer diagnosis. Researchers tracked the women for an additional 11 years, to also assess the reoccurrence of breast cancer, and found that this too was lower in the group that engaged in healthier eating habits.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, a heaping plate of vegetables. For more information on healthy living, visit aarp.org/health. For more, visit aarp.org/podcast. Become a subscriber and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thank for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

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On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, AARP pays tribute to those who played a role on that historic day in a new video series narrated by Bryan Cranston and featuring letters from service members and rare video footage of the war. 

AARP’s TJ Cooney, producer and director of “Letters From D-Day,” joins us to share a behind-the-scenes look about the origins of the video series. 

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