I love this picture.
Every time I look at it my mind's eye is filled with images of the day it was taken. Of this amazing woman I have my arm around and what it took to find her. First, I want to point out something you may have already noticed. I'm hot, sweaty and dressed extremely casually. But there is a funny story behind that. Let me start at the beginning.
Toward the end of 2005, we were preparing a "War Stories" episode on Winston Churchill. My co-producer and writer — Steven Tierney — and I were reading books on this amazing man. We were hunting for great photos and film. We were trying to get our heads around the legacy and story behind one of history's most revered and written about figures. We were also looking for people who knew the man. That is always the challenge when chronicling the life of someone long dead. How do you bring them to life again when you can't find people who really knew him? Where do you find people who stood by his side under the same sun or, in the case of Churchill, the same storm clouds?
• Catch the 'War Stories Biography: Winston Churchill,' Monday, January 26 at 3 a.m. ET
Steve and I were pretty motivated. Years earlier we did an hour on the Battle of Britain and we found an air-raid warden from the blitz of Coventry. We are pretty proud of this because everyone we spoke to, even the Imperial War Museum, told us none were left alive. I was personally motivated by my own family's history. My grandfather Frank was, for a time, an air-raid warden in London and my grandfather Martin a Merchant Marine, who was once relieved of his ship by Hitler's U-boats.
I looked for members of his WWII staff while Steve set his sights on family members. Pretty quickly I found what I was looking for. Her name was Elizabeth Nel. Through historians and Web searches I learned that Elizabeth was just 21 when the war broke out in Europe. Born in Britain, she was living in Canada, but thousands of miles of ocean and U-boats didn't stop her from returning home and joining the war effort. She joined Churchill's secretarial staff and stayed with him until the war was over. Everyone who knew her said she was amazing and the perfect interview. I was also told she was one other thing, unique. She was, at almost 90, the last living member of Churchill's WWII staff. I was thrilled. But there was one problem: I had no idea where in the world she was.
There is no alternative in situations like this: You simply need to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. After a series of phone calls I learned that Elizabeth had moved to South Africa after the war. I was able to search listing there and found a few Nels and whittled the list down to a single address and phone number in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I called again and again, but there was no answer. I called town hall, senior centers and the local police hoping someone might know her. Unfortunately, Port Elizabeth isn't that small. So I wrote a letter, put it in an envelope and dropped it in the mail. Rather quaint!
A week or so later my phone rang. It was Elizabeth. We spoke for about 45 minutes, but within the first five minutes I knew we needed to interview her. She was 89, but there was nothing old about the tone of her voice. I've written about this before, but experiencing it never gets old. Elizabeth wasn't simply telling me stories about Churchill, she was reliving them.
We planned the shooting schedule. A few days in New York, followed by five days in London for interviews with grandchildren and a shooting at Chartwell, Churchill's home. But, first I was going to South Africa. Ollie couldn't make it so I was going it alone. The dilemma? We were short on time. I needed to get there and then to London as fast as possible. So I flew overnight, six hours, to London and grabbed a quick shower at the airport. Then I took another overnight flight to Cape Town, South Africa. This one was 12 hours. I grabbed a short flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, got off the plane and drove to Elizabeth's house. I spent about 12 hours with her altogether. We did an on-camera interview and then, after the crew left, we chatted. I was exhausted, it was hot, but I could have sat there listening to this remarkable woman all night.
As the afternoon became evening I could see that she was growing tired as well. I excused myself and we made plans to see each other the next day, before I flew back to London. The next day I stopped at the market and got her some sweets — chocolate to be precise. Elizabeth did have a sweet tooth. We sat at her kitchen table sipping tea and talking. Too soon it was over and I was off.
So now take a look at the picture again: 10,000 miles, three red-eye flights, one night in South Africa and this photograph. I would gladly fly twice as far and sleep half as much if I could do it all again. Sadly that isn't possible. Elizabeth died on October 30, 2007 at the age of 90. But this weekend, on "War Stories," you can see her relive the days she spent with Winston Churchill. I wrote once before that, "he deserves so much credit, but without driven and intelligent people like Elizabeth at his side he would have failed."
— Martin Hinton co-produced for "War Stories Biography: Winston Churchill"