Every day, an estimated 1,700 U.S. war veterans leave this earth. Their passing explains the urgency with which the Veterans' History Project at the Library of Congress is gathering audio and video recordings of vets and civilian wartime workers. And why legendary filmmaker Ken Burns is completing an epic television documentary series about World War II.
As the nation marks the Memorial Day holiday on Monday, honoring Americans who fell in battle in many wars, special attention will be paid to what's been called The Greatest Generation, survivors of "WW II," now more than 60 years past. Veterans and those who kept the home fires burning will march in parades, visit monuments and cemeteries, and share their stories of terror, sacrifice, and triumph.
Many will never forget the news bulletin on an otherwise normal day: "The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air. . . ." Or President Franklin Roosevelt's speech the next day: "December 7th, 1941, a date which shall live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked."
Etched in older Americans' memories, too, is the chilling sound of German emperor Adolf Hitler, bringing crowds to their feet in applause and Nazi salutes. And commander Dwight D. Eisenhower' calm message to Allied troops on D-Day, as they shoved off on a mission of liberation in Europe: "Soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months."
And there are other memories as well, more personal.
A veteran of the D-Day assault on German positions in Normandy remembers what was code-named "Omaha Beach," where "one of the assault companies took 96 percent casualties in the first five minutes. "You had to cross about 60 meters of open beach to get to the first safe place, which was a seawall. On the other side were more mines, more barbed wire, anti-tank ditches, and more German fire. And they had no place to go but forward."
This man was there as well: "I looked around and saw the sand jumpin' up and all that shooting. And I thought, 'My lord, it's strange that there are sand crabs out here in all this excitement. And I got to the cliff, and I looked back, and that was a machine-gun."
For another veteran, images of the bloody "Battle of the Bulge" in France's Ardennes Forest have haunted him since the War. "I was about to sit down," he says, "and my sergeant said, 'Be careful, lieutenant. They aren't all logs. And I looked down and swept away a little snow, and there were frozen bodies of GIs. And one of them, his backpack had broken open and was full of Christmas presents that he hadn't opened yet. And there he lay."
Back home, this "Rosie the Riveter," as many women who took their place on factory lines while men were away in Europe were called, riveted airplane tail cones in Linden, New Jersey., at a General Motors plant. "And if there hadn't been a war, none of the girls would have been there. I was dumbstruck when I walked into the plant, 'cause it was so enormous and so noisy. You can imagine all those people with riveters pounding."
"Our unit went mountain after mountain," recalls a veteran of the Italian campaign, "and we were in practically daily combat. In not quite a year, most everybody had been wounded."
A woman combat photographer remembers "the bloodshed, the gore, the bodies broken. I would cry, and I would say, 'Oh, they're so young.' I couldn't help but pray for their mothers and their wives and their sisters."
For another vet, the images of a place in Germany rise up in nightmares. It was the Nazi slave labor camp at Buchenwald. "For a young kid like me, the horror stays with me to this day," he says. "People wandering around in a daze, over dead bodies. And I said, 'Ich bin ein Americanisher Soldat - American soldier.' I screamed, 'Ich bin ein Jude - I am a Jew.' Now they came from everywhere. I grabbed one man in a bear hug. I thought I was going to break every bone in his body; my rifle weighed almost as much as he did.
"As long as I live, I will remember."
Another man looks back with some amazement. "Your whole life is based around this experience," he says. The fact that you lived through this. I said, 'God, you let me live. Whatever it is that you want me to do from this moment on, you got me.'"
For these military men and civilian workers, the sounds at the end of the war still bring smiles. Edward R. Murrow, reporting from London: "All of the enemy forces in northwest Germany, Holland, and Denmark have surrendered unconditionally."
This news dispatch: "Seven P.M., Eastern War Time. The Japanese have accepted our terms fully. That's the word we've just received from the White House in Washington. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of the Second World War!!"
And the unbridled joy that followed, as an NBC reporter in New York described: "People who've seen Times Square celebrations before declare that this is the biggest spectacle in New York history!"
There are about 19 million living U.S. wartime veterans, with more to come as troops leave service in the battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Veterans Memorial Project at the Library of Congress is just as interested in more recent wartime recollections as it is in combing the memories of World War II vets and is enlisting the help of veterans' families and friends to gather video and audio recordings, correspondence, and drawings.