Here’s something barely comprehensible: veterans of World War II will be with us until at least 2030. This projection comes from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Here’s the math: Some sixteen million men served in the armed services during the war, which, for the United States, began in late 1941 and ended in the spring of 1945.
If a man, having entered the service in 1945 as an 18-year-old, dies in 2030, it means he would have lived to the age of 113.
Now, it’s possible he lied about his age. Say he marched off to war at 17 or even 16 — 15 seems a stretch - it still means he would be well over 100 in 2030.
Much more plausible is this from the museum: on average in the United States, 294 veterans of the Second World War die each day.
According to the museum webpage, as of September 30 Pennsylvania was home to little over 20,600 veterans of the conflict, the bloodiest, the costliest in all of history; only California and Florida, with 39,000 each, and Texas, with some 23,000, had more among the 50 states.
I have interviewed my share of World War II vets, starting in 1970. My last interview was in December 2011, at the annual gathering of Battle of the Bulge veterans in Greensburg.
I saw the same guys year after year at this Battle of Bulge reunion. And I heard the same stories. In truth, I became a little weary of the whole thing. I had run out of “angles.” I had no more “hooks.”
They were great guys, eager to talk, most of them anyway. I best recall Whitey - Leroy Schaller - a soft-spoken, keenly intelligent older gentleman who was captured by the enemy close to the start of their offensive and sent to a German prisoner of war camp.
Whitney (he was a blond) was confronted by a German officer, who told him, “Your war is over.”
Like a lot of soldiers in that coldest of European winters, Whitey Schaller contracted a case of frostbite at the Bulge which was not a location but a circumstance: in a fierce counterattack after months of steady reversals, the Germans forged a huge “bulge” in the Allies frontline.
They failed, of course, to breakthrough, but the month long battle was brutal and costly for both sides: the Germans suffered loses of nearly 100,000; the Americans suffered 105,000 casualties, including 19,246 dead.
Army grave diggers were busy around the clock; 500 GIs were buried each day in the frozen European sod. According to historian Rick Atkinson, the dead were laid to rest in holes “five feet deep, two feet wide, and six and a half feet long.... One dog tag was placed in the dead man’s mouth, the other tacked to a cross or a Star of David atop the grave.”
One has no right to be cynical or weary of the story-telling in the face of such facts.
This past week I retrieved more than a dozen scrapbooks from our basement. The scrapbooks contained clippings of stories I wrote 30-40 years ago.
Thus, I was saw for the first time in decades an article from 1985 about a Uniontown veteran of World War II, a guy by the name of Ed Danko - Edward J. Danko, Army serial number 33885140.
Like Whitey Schaller, Ed Danko fought at the Battle of the Bulge, the anniversary of which is coming up later this month. Unlike Schaller, Danko was not captured. He fought into Germany.
He recalled for me some of what he saw. I wrote: “Danko remembers German children emerging from the rubble of buildings, fatherless and motherless, orphans in a world gone crazy.
“He remembers the stares of five shell-shocked Americans as they huddled in a German basement in a far outpost, and how he and a buddy led them to an Army jeep: an artillery barrage erupted just at that moment and the five, instead of jumping for safety, stayed put, one war-crazed GI digging his fingertips ever deeper into the frame of the jeep’s windshield.
“He remembers the bodies of dead horses; the bodies of dead Germans crushed by the tread of Allied tanks; he remembers the bits of bodies scattered in foxholes, arms and legs and toes and hands; and the remains of an American airman - his trunk sprawled near his wrecked aircraft, his head and legs missing.”
As the German offensive in the Bulge pushed off in mid-December 1944, Danko wrote in his diary, “Hell last nite.” The next day’s entry was more of the same, “Hell all day.”
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at email@example.com.