A documentary film team is working to chronicle the stories associated with a historical Tyler institution that had a heavy hand in giving the city of Tyler an economic boost.
Camp Fannin was a prisoner of war and Army infantry replacement camp in World War II. It trained more than 200,000 soldiers and employed about 3,000 civilians during its three-year existence from 1943 to 1946, an official with the Camp Fannin Association has said.
At any one time, there were about 30,000 soldiers going through training, which lasted 13 weeks in early years and eight weeks as the war neared the end. The camp functioned much like its own little city, bustling with activity.
The camp was 12 miles outside the city limits on the grounds of what is now UT Health Northeast on U.S. Highway 271, said Sam Kidd, office manager and treasurer of the Smith County Historical Society.
“Camp Fannin (had) a major economic impact because there were so many supplies being bought here locally,” Kidd said. “There were people who came to Tyler, especially wives, and lived in Tyler from months to a couple of years while their husbands were permanently stationed at Camp Fannin.”
It was a legacy Ron Tyler, 57, wanted to preserve. Tyler is the executive producer and owner of AF productions in Tyler, a video and audio production company, and took on filming a documentary as a side project.
“We have been working on it for two years,” he said. “We have been spending (all of our free time) on it while we are working on stuff for customers to keep our lights going.”
Tyler enlisted the help of a longtime friend and history buff Allen Manning, who works as the assignments editor at KTVT CBS 11 in Dallas.
“My passion for history is unending,” Manning said. “I’m a journalism major with a history minor from the University of Houston, and I see my job in journalism as chronicling history.”
Then a local foundation kicked in some funds, and Tyler began working on the film full time.
The pair said they have conducted about five interviews with people associated with the camp in various ways as well as historians and public leaders.
“I don’t want to use a narrator’s voice any more than I have to,” Manning said. “I want the people to tell the stories. Some of them are very colorful, and some of them will make you cry.
The goal is to tell the complete story of the training camp and all its pieces, including the prisoners of war housed there, the Tyler natives who helped the soldiers, the camp hospital that was turned into a tuberculosis hospital and landowners who lost land to the federal government.
Tyler said there are rumors of old military ammunition and trucks buried underground in the area.
“It’s basically telling a story out of Tyler that people don’t know anything about,” Tyler said. “Even the kids in schools don’t study it. We figure it was a story to be told, and why not tell it in a way that everyone can understand it and enjoy it?”
Manning said they are hoping to conduct between 20 and 25 interviews of people who were associated with the camp and have a target completion date of Nov. 1.
Tyler said the final product will be a high-quality production. He said he has been in contact with the Texas Education Agency to possibly show it in schools and has talked with numerous cable networks that are interested in possibly showing it on air once they see the final product.
Two versions will be available for purchase as well — one at about an hour in length and a full-length feature at two hours.
They plan to premiere it at a local theater and allow veterans to see it for free, Tyler said.
The pair said they consider the documentary a gift to the community, but they have had a great time learning the stories so far.
Tyler said researching for project has made him feel closer to his father, John O. Whitting, who served in the Army in World War II.
“He said Camp Fannin (was) one of the toughest training camps in the country,” Tyler said. “It was almost like being a Marine.”
The pair dug through archives at the Smith County Historical Society on Friday, flipping through camp newsletters and filming old photographs of live at the base.
Manning said he had a “eureka” moment when he learned the lens on the famed Norden Bombsight, one of the most precise bomb dropping mechanisms created in the war, was designed in East Texas.
“(You) learn something new every five seconds,” he said. “That’s what I love about this.”
Manning and Tyler are asking any residents with stories or memorabilia they would like to share in the film to email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 903-597-4289.