20 June 2014

Public TV Project to Tell of 'Red Bull' in WWII Italy

A World War II dog tag of U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division citizen-soldier Bernard Bonnema, great-grandfather of Staff Sgt. Dillon Jennings. A current member of the division, Jennings recently toured the Italian battlefields seen by his Bonnema. Jennings was joined by a Twin Cities Public Television team, which is producing a documentary called "Through a Soldier's Eyes," due in November. PHOTO: Twin Cities Public Television
Twin Cities Public Television producer Luke Heikkila recently appeared on the network's weekly news magazine show "Almanac," and briefly described an upcoming documentary project regarding the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division" in World War II Italy.

Originally organized of citizen-soldiers from Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota in 1917, modern units in the Iowa and Minnesota National Guards continue to wear the "Red Bull" patch.

The 8-minute segment of the June 13 TV program is available FREE on streaming video here.

Heikkila followed Staff Sgt. Dillon Jennings and other current members of the 34th Inf. Div. on a recent trip to Italy. The group toured battle sites such as AnzioMonte Cassino, Volturno River, Hill 810, and others. The resulting documentary, "Through a Soldier's Eyes," is slated to air in November 2014, around Veterans Day.

Jenning's great-grandfather, Bernard Bonnema, served in a "Red Bull" unit in World War II Italy. "I don't have any service photos of him. I remember him more as a grandpa than his military service," Jennings tells Heikkila in the "Almanac" report. "My grandfather was probably a pretty good reflection of guys who served in that war—you know, the quiet professional—who never really talked about what they did. I don't fault him for that. I wish I had a chance to pick his brain about it, knowing what I know now. But I think he left enough for us to get a sense of what he did when he was younger, and I think this'll be pretty important for our family in the future ..."

A veteran of two overseas deployments himself, Jennings didn't make the connection between his own service and that of his great-grandfather, until after participating in the record-breaking 22-month deployment of 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry Division (1-34th Bde.) to Iraq in 2006-2007. He tells Heikkila:
When I first got in, the 34th Division was just the unit I happened to serve in. [I]t just didn't happen to have any have any special meaning to me until I got back from my first deployment. That was 22 months long, so it was a very long deployment ...

My mom had actually given me all the paperwork for my great-grandfather, and I'd come across my his discharge paperwork. I found out, in reading, that he had been with the 34th Infantry Division. At the end of our deployment, there was a big emphasis on the connection between our unit and the 34th in World War II—because ours was the longest deployment in Iraq, and theirs was the longest deployment in World War II.
For his part, Heikkila was struck by the dramatic terrain that Midwestern troops once fought and crossed. "As a flat-lander, I just love elevation," he tells "Almanac" hosts Eric Eskola and Cathy Wurzer. "You look across the valleys, and it's just stunning. But then you realize that the Germans were entrenched in those mountainsides. They really had the advantage of elevation. As the allies were coming across those valleys, they could really see them coming for days."



In a later "Almanac" segment, Heikkila shared with Dave Gillette a few insights about embedding with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 5-minute chat is available FREE via streaming video here.

"When you're over there without a weapon you're called a '+1,' because you're a guy without a weapon, and someone with a weapon needs to look out for you," Heikkila tells Gillette. "You walk on his or her right-hand side, always walking slightly behind them, because if they swing around with a weapon, you can't be in the line of fire. I'm a +1, always walking about half-a-step behind someone whose job it is to keep the TV dummy safe."

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