DEERWOOD - If it was up to Robert Polich, he would fade quietly into the limelight. The former Army Air Forces bomber's intense modesty is common among World War II veterans, but that's exactly why Kevin Rofidal was driven to make a film about his 87-year-old great uncle.
"He's very humble, that whole generation is," Rofidal said in a phone interview last week. "They question 'Why do you want to do this? I'm just a regular person.'"
In February, Rofidal, a 37-year-old Edina police officer, did a video interview with Polich, of rural Deerwood. Twin Cities filmmaker Christopher Yocum edited the two-hour interview into a 10-minute documentary, "Red Leader on Fire," that incorporates photographs and footage from World War II.
Robert Polich was part of the 8th Air Force's 305th Bomb Group in World War II. The B-17 pilot is the subject of "Red Leader on Fire," a 10-minute documentary that is part of a Minnesota Historical Society exhibit.
Rofidal and Yocum submitted the film to a Minnesota Historical Society contest. They didn't win, but "Red Leader on Fire" and a transcript of the full interview are now part of the Minnesota's Greatest Generation exhibit at the St. Paul-based museum.
"I had no video background whatsoever," Rofidal said. "But I knew my uncle had great stories, and I knew somebody needed to get them down to capture them forever. I sought out someone who had background in video. I just wanted my uncle's story out there. My prize was spending time with my uncle and seeing the finished product."
Polich, who grew up in Crosby, went on 29 bombing missions in Europe in World War II. His B-17 bomber caught fire on the last one, and Polich injured his back when he hit the ground hard after his parachute malfunctioned. In "Red Leader on Fire," Polich opens up about this incident, his time as a prisoner of war, and more.
Rofidal wishes he had more than the allotted 10 minutes.
"There was one story we didn't have room for where he was in a German hospital and a lot of letters were not getting in and out. He wrote a letter (to his wife, Eunice, who died in 2002) and asked a man going home in full body cast, 'If I slip this letter in your cast will you mail it?'
"It arrived to his wife in Crosby, and still had the sweat on it. I asked Bob if he still had the letter. He did and he read the letter. It was very touching to read his thoughts as a POW."
Between "Red Leader on Fire" and an article in the Legionnaire, Minnesota's American Legion magazine, Polich feels overwhelmed by attention from journalists this year. He is also surprised by letters from total strangers thanking him for his military service as an Air Force lieutenant.
Robert Polich talked about his experience making "Red Leader on Fire" Thursday at his home in rural Deerwood. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Polich feels World War II doesn't define who he is, although he admits it changed his life. For one thing, he hasn't killed a living creature since the war. In one segment of "Red Leader on Fire," he talks about knowing that the bombs he dropped killed babies and children.
"We weren't heroes," Polich said when the Dispatch visited his rural Deerwood home last week. "I say again, I was only one little pebble in 17 million. There are privates and corporals who did a helluva lot more than I did. But for some reason this caught hold and it's been ballooning this last eight months. I don't really understand it.
"I think it's because Veterans Day is coming up; it's a big deal now. You go down the road and see 'Support Our Troops' and all that. And there's something going across the country where they're starting to realize that so very many American boys and girls died in World War II and the Korean War and Vietnam and Somalia and Iraq. A lot of young people shed their blood."
"Red Leader on Fire" ends with a powerful moment when Rofidal asks Polich if he would he do his war years all over again. Polich thinks about it for a moment, then gives a strong "no."
He expanded on his thoughts for a Dispatch reporter.
"I'm getting a lot of young people that come to visit me, and I'll probably be court-martialed for this, but I tell them all: Never, never put on a military uniform of the United States. And they look up and say 'Why, Mr. Polich?,' and I say it's OK under one condition - that you never have to shed your blood on foreign soil.
"If it's protecting your country, you bet. I'm 80-some years old and I'd still pick up a rifle and defend my country. But don't ever, ever go to another country and shed your blood. Let them solve their own problems. Who the hell do we think we are? We can't even run our own country properly."
In February, Robert Polich was interviewed at his rural Deerwood home for the 10-minute documentary about his life, "Red Leader on Fire."
"Red Leader on Fire" and the Minnesota's Greatest Generation project are about more than raw historical information; they also give viewers and museum-goers something to chew on. Rofidal, for one, has done a lot of thinking about his great uncle and World War II recently.
"I think life was different back then," he said. "They call it the Greatest Generation - Tom Brokaw hit the nail on the head. They were so unselfish. Now everyone wants mail overnight. Nobody can wait for anything. They want fast food.
"Then, the whole world stopped what it was doing and retooled factories for the war machine. That just amazes me. It really was a country unified, and they made great sacrifices. I think there's a lot that can be learned."
Polich, who describes himself as "bashful," said he does media interviews only for the sake of his loved ones. He has five children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren spread around the country.
"I haven't seen the film," Polich said of "Red Leader on Fire," noting that it was hard enough to do the interview. "We went down in my so-called sanctuary down in the basement. My children built a sanctuary with all my memorabilia. You know how kids do with their fathers.
Robert Polich (left) and his great nephew, Kevin Rofidal, posed last winter outside Polich's house on Serpent Lake in rural Deerwood. Rofidal interviewed Polich for the 10-minute documentary, "Red Leader on Fire."
"It's not for me, it's for my children and grandchildren - that's all I care about. I get so many letters. Especially with World War II veterans, people want to know their story. It was a different kind of war."
It's often been called the Last Good War, but Polich scoffs at that phrase.
"It was a brutal damn thing," he said. "There's no such thing as a good war. It was a bad, bad war."
JOHN HANSEN may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.
On the Web
For information on the Minnesota Historical Society Minnesota's Greatest Generation project and how you can share your loved one's story online, visit www.mnhs.org/people/mngg/index.htm.
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