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Monday, Aug. 29, 2016

Man with ties to East Prairie may be the face of documentary series

Monday, August 18, 2008

This image, used in promotions for "The War," a World War II documentary which first ran in September on PBS, may be that of former East Prairie resident Frank Smothers.
Frank Smothers now lives in northern California

SIKESTON -- A man with roots in East Prairie may be the man behind the signature image for a PBS documentary series on World War II.

"I was in the kitchen getting a cup of coffee and my wife said, 'Come in here, you're on the TV.' I looked and there was my picture," recalled Frank Smothers.

A resident of Clearlake Oaks in northern California, Smothers is originally from East Prairie. "I was raised there since I was seven weeks old," he said.

Smothers said what appeared to be his face was being used in promotions for "The War," a World War II documentary which first ran in September on the Public Broadcasting Service.

The seven-part series was produced by Florentine Films and WETA-TV. It was directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and written by Geoffrey C. Ward.

"I couldn't believe it," Smothers said. "I couldn't believe it was me. But if it wasn't me, I tell you: I've got a twin somewhere."

It was as a young man living in East Prairie that Smothers joined the U.S. Army.

"I went in the service in 1944 and I got out in 1949," Smothers said. "I was 16 when I went in. I gave some old wino $5 to fake my dad's name."

Upon enlisting, he was sent to the South Pacific and stationed in Guam where he served as a military policeman.

"I shipped out to Japan after the war," Smothers said. "After the war I went to Japan with the Occupation of Japan forces."

Smothers returned to East Prairie following the war then moved to Florida about three years later. In 1960 he moved to California.

While he doesn't remember being photographed, Smothers said his wife and other people who know him well are sure it is him. "Lots of people called, several people," he said.

The most remarkable call, he said, was from Billy Zook, an East Prairie native who now lives in the Cape Girardeau area.

"He gave me a call and said, 'I saw you on TV,'" Smothers recalled. "He was a childhood friend-- we used to run around together. It was the first time I'd heard from him in 50 years when he called me. I didn't know if he was dead or alive or what."

Now, thanks to that phone call, "about every Sunday we talk to each other," Smothers said.

Smothers' family and friends are not the only ones who believe they know the face from "The War."

"We have had a couple of calls like that," said David McMahon of Florentine Films, a co-producer who did photo research for the project.

McMahon said the image appears on the cover of the companion book for the series and was one of four shots used in posters used to promote the documentary.

Selected by Burns, the image is a close-up from a National Archives photograph showing litter bearers carrying a dead soldier, according to McMahon. He said the idea was to show a soldier's face in an intimate way.

"I think that his face just communicated so many things we were trying to say about the human experience of being in the war," McMahon said. "He stood in for all the soldiers who fought in that war."

McMahon said all of those who contacted them regarding the image share "a humble quality" and have not sought national recognition.

"I don't know how or where they got my picture. I really don't think much about it," Smothers said. "I was just doing my time like everybody else."

According to McMahon, the National Archives lists the photograph as being taken on Saipan, an island located 120 miles north of Guam. He said the image is one of 1,096 different still photographs used in the series and also appears in Episode 4 of the series.

"I watched it after my wife told me," Smothers said. "It's a good documentary."