TAMU-CC Faculty Member, Filmmaker Collaborate with Students, Faculty on Award-Winning WWII Films

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A pair of related films – a docudrama titled “The Airmen and The Baroness” and a documentary film titled “American POWs in Croatia: 1941-1945” – written by Dr. Dorothy McClellan, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Regents professor of Criminal Justice, and directed by Nikola Knez, won four awards at the 54th annual World Fest International Film Festival.

The docudrama, which featured several Island University faculty and students in acting roles and was filmed at various Corpus Christi locations, won the Gold Remi Award for Screenplay and the Silver Remi Award for Film Production. The documentary won the Silver Remi Award for Screenplay and a Gold Remi Award for Film Production.

 “The Airmen and The Baroness” tells the largely unknown story of World War II American airmen who crash-landed in Croatia and were protected by Croatians. The airmen were safely returned to their units at the end of the war, but their protectors did not fare as well.

“After reading interviews conducted in the 1970s by American educator and former Marine C. Michael McAdams with WWII American airmen, we began work on the docudrama screenplay in summer 2019,” the pair said. “McAdams’ widow and Damir Rados of the Croatian Information Service in California gave us permission to use the interviews as the basis of our docudrama.”

To bring the screenplay to life, McClellan and Knez turned to Theatre and Dance Professor Emeritus J. Don Luna, now retired, who played Franciscan Father Theodore Benkovic, and eight Islander students, six of whom were theatre and dance majors, one psychology major, and one criminal justice major.

Dr. Christina Murphey, TAMU-CC professor of Nursing, was cast as Baroness Vera Nikolic Podrinska, an artist who sheltered the group of U.S. airmen on her estate above Zagreb from 1941 until 1945; Murphey’s husband, Lyle, was cast as Sgt. Berle “Gene” Keck in his later years. Dr. Richard McDonald, a TAMU-CC adjunct music faculty member, provided clarinet and saxophone performances for the docudrama and set the tone with swing and jazz music of the period.  

McClellan and Knez secured access to the USS Lexington and the Ada Wilson Castle House on Ocean Drive, which was provided to the team by the Ed Rachel Foundation. USS Lexington Executive Director Steve Banta (Capt. USN Retired) and his staff provided access to the ship’s planes and collection of World War II uniforms. Everything seemed to fall into place perfectly, said the filmmakers, until the state of Texas went into lockdown in response to COVID-19.

“We got word that we had only three days to film the actors before lockdown,” McClellan and Knez said. “The actors and the USS Lexington staff were marvelously cooperative, and we managed to work intensely before it became impossible to continue filming. We completed filming in March 2020, and final post-production was completed in summer 2020.” 

The film features an interview with Col. Paul Cameron, who was a Vietnam War-era U.S. Air Force bomber pilot who retired from the TAMU-CC Accounting Department in 2010 after a 30-year career. Cameron shared recollections of his brother’s experiences as a World War II pilot who crash-landed in Europe.    

“None of the airmen are still living, so we included two excerpts from lengthy interviews that we filmed with pilots Bob Batterson, a local Pearl Harbor survivor, and Col. Cameron,” McClellan and Knez said.

The docudrama also featured a last-minute workaround featuring Islander alumnus Patrick Cassidy ’14, who was working on the set as a sound and lighting technician. Cassidy stepped into the role of MFJ, one of the airmen, after a student was forced to drop out of the production due to a scheduling conflict.

Theatre major Jacob Martinez ’22 was initially cast in a smaller role before landing the part of the World War II-era version of Sgt. Keck.

“When I came into the film, after doing my monologue, Director Nikola Knez had me read for another character as well,” Martinez said. “He loved my reading, and in the next hour, I cold read all of Sgt. Keck’s dialogue, shot it, and got to play a larger role in the final cut. It was a great learning experience to really know the script and be ready for anything when filming.”

McClellan and Knez said they have worked with Island University student actors and narrators in previous productions and have always been pleased.

“Our student actors at TAMU-CC are beautifully trained, disciplined, and professional, thanks in great part to their professors, as well as their natural talent,” McClellan and Knez said. “Theatre Department faculty have also graciously assisted with student auditions, most recently Assistant Professor Meredith Melville for ‘The Airmen & The Baroness.’”  

Luna said the film was an amazing hands-on learning opportunity for students.

“Our students got to work with a world-class filmmaker on a professional set. They will be able to use footage of their roles for their respective actor’s reels and showcase their talents when they audition for future roles,” he said.

The films were among 4,700 entries from 79 countries and will be entered in additional film festivals. They will eventually be made widely available through nonprofit organizations. 


Additional Information

The documentary “American POWs in Croatia” was written in the fall and early winter of 2020 by Dr. Dorothy McClellan, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Regents professor of criminal justice, and directed by award-winning international filmmaker Nikola Knez.

It focuses on Croatia’s complex political history during World War II, relying on historical scholarship, official documents, archival footage, and personal accounts of American prisoners of war collected by McAdams. It was completed in 2021 and a scholarly article was published by the European Research Center in the March 2021 edition of its International Journal of Social Sciences, McClellan and Knez said.

“These three projects were inter-related. The docudrama has the feel of a theatrical historical feature film that includes retrospective memories of a World War II experience,” the pair said. “The documentary is classic in its use of a narrator, interviews with experts, and archival material to provide an overview of key political and historical events covering a period of a half century. And the scholarly article, written for an academic audience, covers a period of 150 years, is 35 pages in length, with 66 citations.”


“The Airmen and the Baroness” cast


TAMU-CC Student/Alumni Actors: 

Grace Beikirch, Department of Theatre & Dance (as Visnja Pavelic)

Austin Brady, Department of Theatre & Dance (as Austin Brady)

Patrick Cassidy ‘14 (as MFJ)

Mitchell Jackson, Department of Theatre & Dance (as R.H. Jahries)

Jacob Martinez, Department of Theatre & Dance (as Sgt. Berle “Gene” Keck [WWII-era])

Trace Morris, Department of Theatre & Dance (as Lt. Benkoski)

Dustin Merwell, Department of Theatre & Dance (as Billy T. Turner)

George Salcido, Department of Theatre & Dance (as Marvin W. Cropper)

Justin Stringer, Psychology (as C. Michael McAdams)

Christian Wey, Criminal Justice (as Lt. Vladimir Dubai, Croatian Air Force)


TAMU-CC Faculty/Former Faculty Actors:

USAF Col. Paul T. Cameron  

Retired Professor Emeritus J. Don Luna, Theatre & Dance Department

Dr. Christina L. Murphey, Professor of Nursing


Guest Musician:

Dr. Richard McDonald, TAMU-CC Music Department adjunct