HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — With each passing day, the population of living World War II veterans continues to dwindle across the nation, and with them go stories about one of the most earthshaking periods in history.
Since this past June, a group called Friends of the National World War II Memorial has been seeking out the country’s remaining WWII veterans and interviewing them, cataloging audio and video accounts to serve as an educational and cultural tool for generations to come, according to James Percoco, director of education for the group based in Washington, D.C.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from because we are losing between 600 and 1,000 World War II veterans a day as the generation passes from us very quickly,” Percoco said.
On a recent Saturday, about 30 local WWII veterans got to share their stories during “Meet the Veterans” interviews at Morris Frock American Legion Post 42 on Northern Avenue in Hagerstown.
A group of 10 high school and college students with the group conducted the one-on-one interviews, which will be edited and uploaded onto the Friends’ website — http://www.wwiimemorialfriends.org — along with about 200 others that already have been recorded, Percoco said.
“I think this is really important for young people because it really is an intergenerational project when you get right to the heart of it,” he said. “We have kids from the first part of the 21st century interviewing guys who gave the prime of their life to the nation. It’s very, very powerful.”
The event in Hagerstown was a first for the group. Typically, interviews are recorded at the memorial site in Washington and veterans had to travel there to take part.
While working at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., Percoco said he got in contact with a member of the Potomac Highlands World War II Roundtable group that meets at the local legion post and made arrangements to bring their operation to the veterans of Washington County and surrounding areas.
“This is the first time they’ve taken their show on the road to interview veterans from our region,” said Justin Mayhue, a member of the local roundtable. “… There is so much that the current generation can learn from these gentlemen, from their past experiences, so we don’t have to experience the same thing in the future.”
Students set up two interview stations in one of the Legion’s large meeting rooms, where they spent about 30 minutes each talking with the veterans about their experiences.
Courtney Simmons, a 19-year-old freshman at George Mason University who has helped out with the program since it began, calls it an “absolutely amazing” experience.
“They’ve given insight into the war that we have only seen in history books, and so to put a face to the bombers, the soldiers, the POWs, it’s mind-blowing,” said Simmons, a resident of Springfield, Va. “It takes a couple months to even begin to sink in that you’re talking to history.”
Jack Myers, 89, of Hagerstown, a local WWII veteran who was interviewed Saturday, said it’s great to see younger generations taking an interest in their stories, learning firsthand what took place in the early 1940s and how it affects their lives today.
“I hope they realize that we have enemies in this world,” said Myers, who was 19 when he was drafted and later joined the Army’s 692nd Tank Destroyer Battalion during the war. “And that the United States of America is still the greatest country in the world, with the … democracy-style government and the freedom we enjoy.”
Dressed in his military fatigues and holding a steel German helmet that he took as a souvenir from a prisoner while overseas, Myers said his battalion landed on the beaches of France shortly after the D-Day invasion by Allied forces in 1944.
From there, he said they broke through the German’s Siegfried line, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then drove through prison camps by way of southern France, eventually ending up in Munich, Germany, as the war came to an end.
“You know, Tom Brokaw calls us the greatest generation,” he said. “Well, that might be an overstretch.”
Myers paused and smiled. “But I think we did save the world.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)