USC to preserve, display US Marines’ film archives

The University of South Carolina will be the new home of the U.S. Marine Corps’ film archives. (Photo: Robert Kittle/WBTW)
The University of South Carolina will be the new home of the U.S. Marine Corps’ film archives. (Photo: Robert Kittle/WBTW)

By Robert Kittle

(COLUMBIA, SC)

The University of South Carolina will be the new home of the U.S. Marine Corps’ film archives–10,000 reels of film that includes footage from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and includes training footage from Parris Island, as well as home movies shot by Marines themselves.

The films were housed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, but the building that housed the films is being repurposed. USC Dean of Libraries Tom McNally says it’s an honor for USC to be chosen. “They went to the National Archives; they said we don’t have space. They went to the Library of Congress; they said we don’t have space. And they came to us and we didn’t have space either, but we were so inspired by the thought that we would be the home to the United States Marine Corps film archive that we said yes,” he says.

He says space doesn’t mean just shelf space; the films need to be kept in cold storage at low humidity to preserve them. A family stepped up and donated $400,000, in honor of a relative who served in the Marines, to build the cold storage vault at USC’s Moving Image Research Collections. That vault is now under construction.

McNally says it was important for USC to get the films. “The fourth option was to disperse the films throughout the country to any film repository who would take them. So basically the collection would have been scattered to the winds and never would have been together again. So that was a big motivation, and we didn’t want to see that happen,” he says.

But having the proper storage facility is only half the battle. USC is trying to raise $2 million to digitize all the footage and make it available online. That takes special equipment that goes through each film frame-by-frame, records it on computer, cleans it up if necessary, and then puts it back together as a video.

Curator of the Marine Corps Films Dr. Greg Wilsbacher says, “Part of the project is to kind of acquire a much more robust system that’ll hold all of the files, and even that requires specialized training, people that can manage digital video in an online system.”

Part of the money will create an endowment to make sure that the archives are always available online, which will require ongoing computer upgrades and maintenance.

The website will also allow Marines to enter comments about the films, which will reveal more details. With most of the films, all anyone knows is where and when they were shot.

Retired Marine CWO5 Chuck Paxton served in Vietnam all the way through Operation Desert Storm. He saw some of the film footage with a couple other Marines. “We saw some footage in Vietnam that … just reminded you. You wanted to just pull it back and enlarge it to see if your face was in there, because it just reminded you exactly of where we had been,” he says.

“You could see the tears welling up in our eyes over that. The three of us were here just looking at some of that footage and it … brings back some good memories,” he says.

You can donate to USC’s crowdfunding effort by clicking here.