Published May 24, 2008
| Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS – They were a swashbuckling lot — parachuting behind enemy lines, charging onto sandy beaches as bullets whizzed by, liberating countries from a totalitarian grip.
They jitterbugged the nights away, sang about faraway sweethearts and painted the noses of their B-17 bombers with bawdy pinups. "They're overpaid, over-sexed and over here," the British groused about their American allies.
And now, they're dying off, and with them the memories that defined what has been called the Greatest Generation.
As their ranks shrink, the National World War II Museum is one of several organizations rushing to preserve the personal accounts of veterans. Other such efforts are sponsored by the Library of Congress and the U.S. Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project.
Once 16 million strong, U.S. veterans of World War II are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day and now number about 2.5 million, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.
"I think that's low now," said Martin Morgan, historian for the World War II Museum in New Orleans of the number of vets dying each day. "But judging by the passing of the World War I veterans, we're predicting they will all be gone by 2020."
Reunions tell the story of the decline.
The PT boat organization Peter Tare Inc., for example, held its last reunion in 2007 with only 16 members after meeting since 1947.
"I miss the reunions," said William Paynter, 91, who commanded both a PT boat and a squadron in the South Pacific. "But age is catching up with us and time is running out."
Paynter, who received the Navy Cross and gave his World War II history to the Navy, added: "There was a time when it was difficult to talk about some parts of it. But not any more. Now it's important to get it down."
John McDonough, 84, of Plainview, Texas, last summer attended what likely was the final reunion of the Army's 554th anti-aircraft battalion. The unit landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in June 1944, and fought its way to Germany.
"There were only four veterans at this reunion," said McDonough. "Some of them aren't in real good health, and getting around is hard.
"We're coming to the end of the line, soon there won't be anyone around who was part of that war."
The World War II museum has a small television studio where it records everything on high definition video, said spokeswoman Clem Goldberger. In addition there are four museum historians who travel the country "almost continuously," collecting histories, she said.
The museum now has over 3,000 histories. It is now collecting based on upcoming displays, such as the Battle of the Bulge, Goldberger said.
"In the past an epoch would end and the records were usually small," Morgan said. "Where are the oral histories for the veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, even World War I? Here we will preserve this history. We want to be certain that we get it in time to preserve it."
Like the story of Paul Hilliard, who has done a recording.
Hilliard, 83, of Lafayette, La., quit school at 17 and joined the Marines, afraid the war would end before he could be part of it. He served as a gunner in two-seat dive bombers, flying more than 50 missions in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.
"I was just along for the ride and to strafe," Hilliard said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We'd dive bomb the target, then the pilot would turn and I'd strafe the target until I ran out of bullets."
Hilliard took advantage of the GI Bill after the war, got a law degree and went into the oil business.
Because of the educational benefits, the discipline he learned and the fact that he ended the war unhurt, it wasn't a bad experience for him, he says. Still he acknowledges, "I was scared every time we went on a mission."
Frances Hoffman, 85, who now sells tickets at the World War II Museum, watched the young men she knew march off to war while she went to work in a defense plant. Then in 1943 she walked into a post office in Milwaukee and saw a recruiting poster for the Women's Marine Corps.
"It was very unusual, women were not even expected to work in those days," Hoffman said. "When you got out of school you got married or maybe got a job as a clerk or stenographer. And when you got married you quit that even."
But Hoffman, one of four daughters, wanted to serve her country, and persuaded her shocked father to agree.
"I went through basic training at Camp Lejeune; it was new then," said Hoffman, who still greets fellow Marine vets with a rousing "semper fi."
She completed firearm training and "learned how to rappel down the side of a ship. It was very hard, physically demanding. We weren't used to that sort of thing."
After the war, Hoffman married and went into a 40-year career in banking. "Many people were uncomfortable having a woman take care of them," she said. "But my boss was modern enough to hire me and count my time in service as the same as a college education."
Many veterans bring families to see the museum's treasured relics of what for many were the most meaningful years of their lives. Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the museum averaged about 300,000 visitors a year. It's about 180,000 now.
Founded as the D-Day Museum by the late University of New Orleans author and historian Stephen Ambrose in 2000, and designated the nation's official World War II Museum by Congress in 2004, the museum has outgrown its original vision as a small facility to store war memorabilia. It began with exhibits focusing on the Normandy invasion, then expanded to include the war in the Pacific.
The museum, funded by state, federal and private money and grants, recently began a $300 million expansion. When completed, its seven buildings will cover almost six acres.
And it's not just veterans pointing to the museum's huge "Gooney Bird" transport plane, and checking out landing craft, tanks and Jeeps.
"A lot of time I find myself talking to kids 7 or 8 who are big World War II buffs," Morgan said. "I was born 24 years after the war and I got interested in it at about that age. Now I'm finding kids doing the same thing."