Hollywood actor and writer James McEachin was inspired by his service in the United States Army before and during the Korean War. McEachin tells the stories of military veterans in two popular short films and a one-man stage play. The productions have found a responsive audience with other veterans.
James McEachin struck a chord with many soldiers and veterans with a short film that he starred in with his old acting colleague, David Huddleston. The film was created by two Arizona brothers, Adam and Donovan Montierth, in 2003. Just 11 minutes long, it has circulated widely on the Internet, with millions of online viewings.
Titled Reveille, the film was named for the early morning bugle call that summons soldiers to duty. It has no dialogue, but shows two elderly veterans - one black and one white, one army and one navy. The two are stubborn, but dignified. And they compete each morning for the honor of raising the flag at their apartment building.
McEachin says he went to Phoenix for two days of filming, then forgot about the project.
"Maybe nine months or a year later, I started getting mail from soldiers overseas saying, 'Dear Mr. McEachin, Thank you for that wonderful video' and started extolling the virtues of this thing. And I had totally forgotten about it," said James McEachin.
Veterans and active-duty military personnel responded to the theme of duty and sacrifice, and McEachin and Huddleston have starred in a 22-minute sequel called Old Glory.
McEachin, who was wounded in the Korean War, started acting almost by accident. He moved to Los Angeles and became a music producer.
"So I stayed in music for a while, a year or two, and I happened to be walking down the street on Melrose Avenue, almost in front of Paramount Studios, and there was this little guy that came up and he says, 'Ain't you an actor?' I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Do you want to be an actor?'"
McEachin followed up and got a part in a low-budget feature in the 1960s. That led to better offers. He went on to work with such stars as Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Bette Davis and James Garner, appearing in more than 100 films and television shows. He played a police detective opposite Raymond Burr in an ongoing legal drama, the Perry Mason television movies.
In the 1970s, he starred in his own television series called Tenafly. The program was about a black private detective and ran for only one season. But it was a breakthrough - one of the first network programs to star an African American.
In the 1990s McEachin turned to writing, publishing the first of six books. It was called Farewell to the Mockingbirds and told the true-life tale of a deadly racial incident involving black soldiers on the eve of World War I. Scores of soldiers were charged with mutiny and murder after a race riot near their base in Texas. They were given a hurried trial and 13 were hanged.
The soldiers belonged to the regiment McEachin served in more than 30 years later.
The actor and writer says racial barriers were breaking down when he was in the military, following an order by U.S. President Harry Truman to integrate the armed forces. That set the tone for wider racial integration in the country.
McEachin served in a mixed military unit in the Korean War. He says he owes his life to an unknown white soldier who rescued him from the battlefield after he was wounded in a firefight.
"A blond-headed guy who saved my life," said McEachin. "Had it not been for him, I probably would not have come home. But I had to find this guy and, sadly, now I can't talk about it too much because I get too emotional about it. I was never able to find him."
McEachin also gets emotional when he recalls another soldier who made a difference in his life, a man named Lieutenant Schenk, who braved enemy fire defending his unit before he was killed.
McEachin has served as an honorary ambassador for the U.S. Army Reserve and says that work, together his wartime experiences, inspired a one-man play called Above the Call; Beyond the Duty. A reflection on war and racial tensions, it premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington last year.
McEachin says the character is a former soldier who is now a ghost, and prepares to talk to God on Judgment Day.
"And as his grandfather tells him, 'Don't go up there talking to God about war and all of that because God has been in a 1,000 wars and on 10,000 battlefields," he said. "God was with you and your enemy.'"
McEachin says his military service shaped his character, something he failed to realize at the time. He earned a Purple Heart, which is awarded to members of the armed forces who are wounded or killed in battle, and was later given a Silver Star for gallantry in action.
He says his one-man play conveys a message of pride on behalf of veterans.
"I think as I say at the close of the first act, 'No veterans, no democracy," said James McEachin. "No democracy, no America.' And I firmly believe that."
McEachin's play, Above the Call; Beyond the Duty, will be staged in Los Angeles for three days, beginning February 20.