After seven decades, two U.S. Navy veterans were reunited in Stover last October. Raymond “DeVere” Johnson, 92, of Illinois, believed he was the last survivor of the USS LST-218 until his daughter Cheryl Johnson Brown placed his photo on Facebook.
The photo of Johnson, who was a signalman on the ship, was placed online on D-Day, June 6 of last year. It went viral within a week with more than 1 million shares and 74,494 likes and it eventually lead them to John Heimsoth, 91, of Stover, who served with Johnson decades ago. The viral Facebook post also caught the attention of Los Angeles producer Kyle Olson, who decided to make a documentary about the men.
“The Last Signal” is in post-production work and Olson, the executive producer and director for the film, has a projected release date for no later than Veterans Day.
Olson, owner of Kyle C. Olson Productions and who has worked on shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “The Bachelor,” said the people of Stover “embraced” them and the story when they arrived to film last fall.
“At its very simplest, ‘The Last Signal’ is a documentary about two World War II veterans that reunite for the first time in over 70 years,” Olson said by phone Tuesday while driving in Los Angeles. “The last time that these gentlemen saw each other was when they said farewell when they stepped off the LST-218 during the end of their service.
“Obviously, as you can imagine, this is a unique story because this doesn’t really happen all the time,” he added.
Olson said Johnson believed for the longest time he was the only one left from the LST-218.
“Cheryl was going to prove him wrong,” he added. “So, she took to Facebook with a picture of her father saying ‘I was on LST-218 during World War II. If you know anybody who might know one of my shipmates please share and help me get the word out.’
“It went viral, and saying that is almost an understatement,” Olson noted. “It went really hot, really fast. I actually caught onto the story through that viral post.”
Olson said he reached out to the Johnson family and offered to film a documentary about their search. At that point the Johnson’s still hadn’t heard from any other shipmates.
“They said ‘we’ll try to keep you posted and we’ll see what happens,’” he said. “Long story short, fast forward it to a few months later, they called me back and said ‘we found somebody and his name is John Heimsoth and we think he is living in Stover, Missouri.”
The family added that they were going to try and plan a reunion for the men before it was too late.
“We became an integral part of that process,” Olson noted. “We worked closely with the family to make this whole thing happen. We really wanted to see how we could go about doing this.”
He added that they prepared everything they could, on their end, for the reunion and flew from California to Joliet, Illinois, to meet the Johnson family.
“We traveled with DeVere and Cheryl and their family to Stover, Missouri, in a good old-fashioned road trip,” Olson said. “It was really cool! DeVere does fly, but it was one of those things where it was close enough that we said ‘you know why don’t we drive and make a day of it.’”
After arriving in Stover that night the group rested. The reunion with Heimsoth was hosted the next day.
“As you can imagine, there was a lot of history being made that day, with the reunion of those two,” Olson added.
Olson and co-producer Tracie Hunter are working with post-production for the film. Marcus Taplin, of Minnesota, an Emmy-nominated photographer, is the director of photography.
Hunter spoke with the Democrat by phone Thursday from a film shoot in Georgia. She said she thought the social media aspect of Johnson’s search was inspirational.
“I think it was a really cool way to show humanity coming together to help each other out,” she said. “This daughter wanted to really help her father find (his shipmates).
“Everybody, to some extent, has a similar story,” she added. “This is a World War II piece, the history is dying fast, and we have to tell the stories. I think if anything, I just want to add that seeing social media come together and so many people interested in helping a stranger was really powerful.”
Although they haven’t decided on a length for the film yet, Olson and Hunter have ideas.
“It might still be considered a short (film), but we might have the potential of going feature,” Olson said. “We really don’t want to define a length, we want to see how much story we can put into it. We know for a fact it will be at least a good 45 minutes, but I could also see this being at little over an hour.”
At present they are working to put together a “sizzle reel” that will be presented to networks. Olson added that they have also begun a “kick-starter” campaign to raise funds to produce the sizzle reel.
“We’ve had a lot of interest already from a number of networks that have said ‘we absolutely want to show this,’” he said. “If one of them bites on the sizzle, this will be on the airwaves a lot sooner and much earlier than we hoped. That is definitely part of the goal.
“It’s a story that really needs to be told,” Olson added. “I also really, really want to make sure that John and DeVere have the opportunity to experience that reunion on the big screen again for themselves. That’s real important to us.”
Olson noted that the whole process was a reunion first and a film/documentary second.
“We wanted to respect that,” he added. “Throughout the process we were very much flies on the wall.”
On Thursday, Johnson said by phone in Florida that he enjoyed meeting Heimsoth although they had never met while on the LST-218.
“It was exciting,” he said.
He added that he thought he was the last living survivor of the ship. When he found Heimsoth he was relieved to know he wasn’t the only one anymore.
He said he was looking forward to viewing “The Last Signal” when it’s released.
The Democrat also called John Heimsoth but was unable to reach him by press time.
More information “The Last Signal” can be found at www.LastSignalMovie.com and www.facebook.com/LastSignalMovie. For those who wish to contribute, a fundraising campaign for the sizzle reel is set up at www.hatchfund.org/project/the_last_signal.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.