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(CBSDFW.COM) – Equal parts explorer and life-saving ER doctor, Jeff Gusky brings a dark, underground city where American soldiers took refuge during World War I into the light.
His documentary, “Americans Underground: Secret City Of WWI,” takes viewers inside caves beneath a wheat field in Northern France where soldiers on both sides of the conflict sought refuge a century ago.
Originally the caves were limestone quarries providing the stone that built the great castles and cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Many happen to lie close to where some of the original trenches of the Western Front were dug across Northern France. For example, the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest in world history, was fought nearby in 1916.
What Gusky found inside was an underground city — complete with railcars and electricity. Painstakingly carved on its limestone walls are the elaborate carvings left by soldiers who were once billeted there, many of whom were American.
“The power of this project – in fact it leaves people in tears – is the human connection,” said Gusky, whose journey began in 2011, after a chance meeting with a French bureaucrat in Paris. Turns out, the bureaucrat was also in charge of all the WWI cemeteries in the country. He offered to introduce Gusky to officials all along the 45-mile stretch of the Western Front. Over time, those officials would “share their secrets,” according to Gusky.
And what secrets they turned out to be.
Existing deep in the countryside of Naours, France, where the outside world isn’t exactly welcome, Gusky set about establishing trust with the farmer who owns the 4-acre wheat field above the long forgotten shelter featured in the film.
“Art became our language. There’s a cultural value to patrimony for the French,” explained Gusky. “We were making art together, creating a bond.”
But before he could create that art, Gusky had to descend into a hole with all his gear to reach the caves.
It was complicated.
“You have to pack everything on your back. You’re basically taking a portrait studio on your back,” he described.
Not to mention logistics of shooting unchartered territory underground, in the pitch black. “Lighting is a challenge… making sure the beauty of the surface shows,” Gusky explained.
It was dangerous.
Falling down like “Alice In Wonderland” to reach the carved-out rooms wasn’t the riskiest part of the project either.
“There’s live ammo… you could fall into a hole… an unstable roof could collapse on or beneath you…”
One must suffer for their art, no?
Once Gusky was “in” he set about documenting the thousands of names carved into the ancient limestone by American soldiers. In some cases, the inscriptions revealed their identities, where they came from, and ultimately their fate. To date, Gusky has photographed 4,000 names including seven Texans. He said one room even had a pilot’s name from Waco.
Back above ground, Gusky and his team tracked down living descendants of the soldiers who left messages from the battlefield for the future. And the journey didn’t end there.
With help from military experts and historians, Gusky traced the etchings back to soldiers from the Yankee Division, an American unit from New England that was among the first to arrive in France. As Gusky continued to unlock the many mysteries hidden in this underground city for a century, he discovered intriguing American Indian images and symbols.
The symbols led him to a remarkable story about the Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe from Maine. Members of the tribe fought and even died for America long before they were granted the rights of full citizenship.
“They joined the fight for nothing more than love of country and their belief in America,” said Gusky.
From history buffs to daily obsessors of current events, the documentary speaks a language that expresses how vulnerable we are as modern people. It reminds, that we aren’t that different from those WWI soldiers who left their marks in the dark.
“People who lived during WWI were modern people who lived in peace. They were addicted to the modern life, which ultimately made them vulnerable to mass destruction,” said Gusky. “WWI was dehumanizing on a scale that’s unimaginable. For the first time, they had technological weapons. The total dehumanization from that time is the same as what we face today with terrorism.”
Unfortunately, vandals are stealing and destroying the American cultural treasures featured in the film, left untouched for decades.
“These memories of suffering add the human connection and that’s why they’re so important,” said Gusky.
You can see them, before it’s too late when “Americans Underground: Secret City Of WWI” premiers on Monday, March 13, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.