World War II and Korean War veterans have vital stories to pass on.
Let’s face the facts, Veterans of World War II are dying by the hundreds each month. The majority of the survivors are in their 80s; most of the rest have passed into the 90s. Those who served during the Korean War are joining them in increasing numbers. Too many are departing with their families not knowing much about their days in uniform. Sad to say, the only evidence left of their early lives may be a few school and military records, photographs or newspaper clippings. The youngsters of today may have no personal experience in the military that will help them understand these tidbits of information and probably have no idea what their grandparents’ lives were like before they served their country.
All the surviving veterans of both wars grew up during the Great Depression. Nearly anyone who was in any of the services during World War II was born just before or during the early to mid-1920s; a boy of 18 who joined up in 1950 for the Korean War was born in 1932, when his parents were beginning the struggle to survive in a sinking economic environment that resulted in bank failures, closed factories and record unemployment. The boy’s parents heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt telling the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” as he embarked on the New Deal. Some may remember the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program that brought relief to 2 million jobless men. Work camps were run in semimilitary style, and a variety of much-needed conservation projects were completed around the country. What stories these Depression-era men and women can tell if they are prompted to do so!
In Dallas a group of about 200 World War II and Korean War veterans called the Happy Warriors—mostly military aviators—meet for a brown bag lunch session each month at the Frontiers of Flight Museum on Love Field to hear one of them tell about his experiences. Often it’s the first time anyone has invited him to tell his story.
Typical of the talks was one by John H. “Lucky” Luckadoo, a former Boeing B-17 pilot who was a survivor of the 100th Bomb Group, known as the “Bloody Hundredth” because of its great losses over Germany. Fiske Hanley II told of the shocking Kempei Tai police brutality he experienced as a “special prisoner” after he was shot down over Japan. Others have told of their high and low points and humorous incidents during their service.
The University of North Texas has an extensive oral history program to preserve the memoirs of Texans, including World War II veterans, who have been eyewitnesses to or participants in historic events. Other universities and the military services have similar programs, but some are limited to high-ranking personnel or those with unusual combat experiences.
But what about the close relative in the family who also served, although he or she may not have reached high rank or seen combat overseas? Millions did their duty, resumed their lives and never told their stories to anyone. They should disclose those recollections now for the benefit of their progeny, so they’ll know what it was like during those extraordinary times.
It is probably too much to expect octogenarians to write a lengthy chronicle by hand and try to recall names, places and events accurately. Through the miracle of tape recorders, copy machines with picture-scanning capabilities and computers, which the younger generations use with alacrity, interesting life stories can come forward from the elderly when prompted by adroit questioning by relatives or friends. Newspaper clippings, photographs and records can stimulate recall and are excellent starting points for interviewers. And bless the power of the Internet, which can produce astonishing amounts of information about historic events that can put those past years in context.
No one else knows as much about you as you do. If you’re a veteran, why not try to find someone who will listen, record and print your life story?
Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.