The passion shows in Paolo Cascio's photographs and in his eyes.
"I'm sorry. I'm breaking up a little," the Schaumburg native says, pausing to wipe tears as he explains how he became the exclusive photographer for a "Final Salute" reunion of four crew members of the USS Arizona, which was sunk Dec. 7, 1941, in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "My, God. I can't tell you how rewarding this is. It's been an amazing journey for me."
An award-winning cinematographer whose film credits include "The Untouchables," "Groundhog Day" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," Cascio, 53, has spent the past five years trying to hunt down and photograph the remaining handful left from the 334 survivors of the USS Arizona -- the warship that still rests at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and serves as the memorial and final resting place for most of the 1,177 sailors and Marines who were killed on the ship that morning 75 years ago.
Having shot an iconic photo of his father, Iggy -- a Korean War-era veteran who still lives with his wife, Shirley, in Schaumburg -- Cascio became obsessed with photographing veterans as a way to honor them.
While working on a movie in Atlanta in 2011, Cascio planned to photograph a Dec. 7 event to honor a Pearl Harbor veteran, but a rainstorm canceled the ceremony.
In 2013, Cascio was shooting photographs for a mountain bike company in Colorado when he spotted an old man wearing a USS Indianapolis cap at a local breakfast place. That led to Cascio shooting photographs of Paul J. Murphy, who not only survived the initial torpedo blasts that sunk that ship in 1945, but several days of horrific shark attacks that followed.
That same year, Cascio photographed the graveside service at Arlington National Cemetery for Col. Edwin Ramsey, who led the last cavalry charge on horseback during World War II.
But his personal and online search for survivors of the USS Arizona hadn't turned up a thing.
"It was like chasing a ghost," Cascio says.
That changed March 25, when his inquiry about a post on Facebook hit pay dirt.
"Oh, my gosh. I found one," Cascio says, again tearing up at the memory of hearing from Nikki Stratton, the granddaughter of survivor Donald Stratton. "I get this message sitting in church at Willow Creek on Easter Sunday. I'll never forget it."
The veteran's son, Randy Stratton, was organizing a reunion in Pearl Harbor for all the surviving members of that crew. Four of the five living survivors of the USS Arizona are spending this week in Hawaii, with Cascio as the group's exclusive photographer, capturing it all on film for a coffee-table book he plans to title, "Faces of Freedom: Pearl Harbor's 75th Anniversary."
Financing the trip with his own money and donations he receives from his GoFundMe page, Cascio says his book will be sold in the USS Arizona Memorial gift shop and at bookstores and veteran events, with a portion of the proceeds going to the USS Arizona Survivors Foundation, which helps care for those veterans.
"He just said, 'I'm going to do this on my own,'" Shirley Cascio says of her son. "He's a good kid with a kind heart."
Being at Pearl Harbor with four USS Arizona veterans "is like touring with The Beatles," Paolo Cascio says, explaining how tourists want autographs and photographs of the men.
"I sit down and have breakfast with these guys every morning," says Cascio, who adds that he finds visits with these men in their mid-90s more rewarding than his times making movies with director John Hughes or music videos starring Elton John. "They are not actors or famous people. They're heroes."
Everywhere those heroes go this week, Cascio follows.
"Welcome to the family," Randy Stratton told Cascio as he met with the elder Stratton and the other veterans, Ken Potts, Lou Conter and Lauren Bruner.
"When these guys are gone ..." Cascio says, not bothering to finish that sentence. "I am incredibly honored to have this opportunity to be part of this historic gathering, and to be able to record for posterity this historic event."
As Cascio captures the moments for the veterans, a crew from SmugMug Films is filming a documentary about Cascio's project of passion.
"You could not pay a million dollars to hear what I've heard," Cascio says of his time with the veterans. "It gives me chills."