There’s a timeless quality to World War II that America’s other conflicts don’t possess.
The battle across two oceans came against powerful enemies who possessed much of three continents. The objectives of the war came with a clarity Americans haven’t seen since: We would either topple our fascist opponents or learn to speak Japanese and German.
The heroism of Iwo Jima and Midway in the Pacific and D-Day and the bombing raids in Europe have stuck in the American psyche.
But while World War II’s memories may resist the decades, the troops who fought in it — 16,112,566 of them — have no such luxury. The war claimed more than 400,000 troops and time has claimed almost all of the rest. Just over 400,000 World War II veterans remain alive.
The Gazette is working to capture the memories of Colorado’s remaining World War II veterans through articles and a podcast series called “The Last of the Greatest.”
Listen to the podcast here.
The first episode of the podcast begins with five veterans of the war who are spending their final years together at a Monument senior living center.
They’re not the heroes John Wayne portrayed in his many World War II roles. Jim Swanson was in training for the Navy when the war ended, and wound up with a typewriter for his weapon. Ed Krekorian fought through the Pacific in the Marine Corps, but spent most of the war guarding air bases rather than storming beaches.
At Jackson Creek Senior Living, they have formed a unique fraternity, only sometimes sharing memories of war but reveling that they all joined in an American crusade.
They’re all well past 90, but their memories have stuck with them like tattoos. Frank Moon can’t forget the name of a comrade who died after seemingly predicting his own demise. Arthur Lee Whisennand remembers joining the Marines because actors made the service branch seem cooler than the others with their portrayals on the silver screen.
Earl Depner summed up his recollections of the war: “Well, the day I got shot down, that was probably the most memorable. There were a lot of others.”
Here are their war stories.
Ed Krekorian joined the Marine Corps after high school and wound up in the Solomon Islands campaign that wrested the southwestern Pacific from Japanese hands.
He’s a three-war veteran – many World War II veterans wound up in the Korean war that kicked off in 1950 and spent the last years of their military careers in Vietnam.
Krekorian said World War II gave him a foundation that he built the rest of his life upon.
“Well it was three years in the Marine Corps,” he said. “I learned a lot of discipline, leadership, so many other qualities that really orient you for the rest of your life.”
Born in Massachusetts, Krekorian went to Parris Island, S.C., in 1943, where tough drill instructors readied him for life in the corps and life at war.
Many of his fellow Marines wound up storming beaches. Krekorian was spared that deadly job and was sent to help provide security for VMF-413, a fighter squadron called the “Night Hecklers” for their midnight raids on Japanese islands, including the stronghold of Rabaul.
“All of my activity, which is as a private and a private 1st class, is somewhat benign,” the 94-year-old said.
Just getting to the Solomons on a transport ship was an adventure for the teenaged Marine.
“I was still in my bunk, heard general quarters general quarters, everybody was running up the stairs to the deck to be on deck. And they were telling us this was no drill,” he said. “We got there and I saw one torpedo going parallel to the ship.”
He was sent to Stirling Island, one of thousands of places in the war that was strategically important, but never famous.
The Marines feared hold-out Japanese who stayed in hiding in American held territory and emerged in suicidal attacks.
“They gave us Thompson submachine guns. There we were 18 years old like Eliot Ness with a Tommy Gun,” he said referring to the famous prohibition agent who took on Chicago mobster Al Capone.
Marine pilots and the Army Air Corps colleagues spent months flying bombing missions from Stirling to harass the Japanese hold of Rabaul.
“And eventually we had to acquire additional airfields. So we went from Stirling Island to Green Island, which was northwest of Bougainville,” he said. “I know you haven't heard all these terms before, but they were islands that were critical to the neutralization of Rabaul.”
The job was plenty dangerous.
“Of my unit I think we had 45 killed or missing when I left the Pacific, 18 months later,” he said. “Of those, about 20 years after the war, I learned that five of the missing had been captured and taken to Rabaul and beheaded.”
He was at home waiting for a new assignment when the war ended.
Krekorian later went on to become an Army officer in Korea and then became an Army doctor, saving lives in Vietnam rather than taking them with automatic weapons fire.
But as he looks back, he doesn’t regret the bloodshed Americans inflicted in the war.
“And I remember statements from the pilot who flew the Enola Gay and dropped the first bomb,” he said. “He had no guilt complex because of the tremendous number of lives he saved by ending the war, Japanese and American lives. So it seems to even itself out, but you have to work out your own justifications.”
Jim Swanson remembers celebrating the first use of nuclear weapons in war.
He was a teenage boot at Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. Boots, in the first stage of naval training, aren’t even sailors yet.
He was on a drill field, where the boots learned to march and ground their way through daily exercise. The announcement was made far across the field.
“We had no idea what was being said. But, after a while, those who were up close to it,” he said, “they started shouting and jumping up and down and so on. They were just thrilled and so on celebrating, and we said, what in the world is going on. And so then we were told to go back to our barracks. And we turned our radio on. Then we learned that they had dropped the bomb.”
Swanson knew he wanted to join the Navy, but he was no eager volunteer. Like millions of young Americans, he knew he would eventually get a letter from the draft board.
“I thought maybe I would learn something worthwhile much better than just lying in mud, trying to shoot somebody,” he said.
Swanson joined the Navy to see the world, and it looked a lot like his familiar stomping grounds in Iowa.
An early end of the war saw him assigned to a recruiting depot in Des Moines. He became what some wryly called a "Royal Ranger," an insulting nickname resulting from the popularity of Royal-brand typewriters.
“We did the paperwork on the new recruits as they came in from around the state. We did the paperwork where they were sworn into the Navy and set up their records, got them all set to go to boot camp someplace,” he said. “Also, at that time, people were coming back from being overseas for several years. And they would report back to Des Moines.”
Those coming back carried paperwork that outlined their war heroism. Swanson felt like he had missed out.
Swanson did eventually get to sea on a transport hauling troops to Pacific islands and bringing home war veterans. He surprised himself with an immunity to seasickness.
The 93-year-old worries about the world these days. He says 2019 is too like the unstable times that preceded World War II.
“I see what I feel are too many similarities between the way things were developing in the 30s and what's happening now. And maybe I'm misreading the events going on in the world, but seems to me as similar enough that it kind of scares me.”
Whisennand was only 16, but he was eager to join in World War II, so he signed up for the Merchant Marines, sailors who hauled cargo across the world’s oceans and dodged torpedoes.
“I don't know how many thousands of ships they got sunk on the Atlantic Ocean by World War II,” the 91-year-old said.
Whisennand made one harrowing crossing of the Atlantic aboard a fuel tanker, one of hundreds that were slapped together alongside Liberty ships to satisfy the wars demand for transport ships. The allies were dependent on American oil supplies through the war. And American tankers were ripe targets for Germany’s submarines, which spent early 1942 patrolling so close the American coast that beach-goers could see the flames and smoke from their victims.
But submarines couldn’t hunt during the storms that tossed Whisennand’s passage to England.
Instead of submarines, Whisennand was tormented by tall tales from senior seamen who would goad him into thinking there was a mid-ocean mail call and other pranks during what was an uneventful trip.
He feared the return trip, but veterans of the voyage reassured him.
“The old timer says well, they don't waste their torpedoes and stuff on ships that are empty,” he said.
Home again in late 1944, Whisennand was finally old enough to get into the real war. He had seen a movie and knew all about the Marine Corps. Whisennand swears it starred Richard Widmark, but he probably saw "Marine Raiders," a epic released in late 1944 that glamorized the service.
“So I went down to join the Marine Corps -- I was looking for something to do anyway,” he said.
The Marines trained him how to shoot and storm a beach. He was assigned to an outfit that seemed bound for Tokyo.
Whisennand was headed across the Pacific for the invasion of Japan in the summer of 1945.
The invasion was expected to be so deadly that the Pentagon had tens of thousands of Purple Heart Medals manufactured. They made so many of the medals that are given to wounded troops that troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan received medals originally intended for World War II.
“Out in the middle of the ocean, there's no TV, nothing like that,” he said. “There's only radio. So they talk about a big bomb and wiping out a city.”
The war’s end brought 16 million troops back to the United States amid widespread factory layoffs as America worked to transition from war to peace.
Many troops headed off to college on the new GI bill.
Whisennand wound up back in Kansas City, Mo., where he was raised.
He was one of thousands of World War II veterans who turned around after the war and volunteered for the downsized peacetime military, a decision that would later land him in the middle of the Korean War.
“Like I say, there weren't any jobs,” he said. “So I went back into the Marines.”
Frank Moon technically joined the military before World War II engulfed the United States. He arrived at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the summer of 1941, about six months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The war brought big changes to West Point, including a lightning-fast curriculum designed to get new Army lieutenants into the war faster. Moon completed the four-year program in three, graduating on June 6, 1944, the day Allied troops crossed the English Channel to invade France.
“I was very excited,” he said. “I wanted to be an officer, not a cadet.”
The shine wasn’t off Moon’s new lieutenant’s bars by the time he was assigned to an engineering battalion and on his way to France. His clearest memory of the war comes from Germany in the last weeks of April, 1945.
“A sergeant from another part of the company came by, and he said ‘Can I talk to you lieutenant?’ I said, sure. So he began to tell me about his family, his wife, his three daughters, how much he missed them, so forth. And this went on for about two or three hours,” Moon said. “I'm sitting there thinking, what is this all about? Why did he come to me? Although, knowing his platoon commander, I could understand why he didn't talk to him. So finally, he said, ‘Well, thanks for listening to me lieutenant.’ Got up and left. About 10 o'clock the next morning he was killed.”
Moon remembers the sergeant’s name: Charlie Scott.
“I don't know what it was, but I've never been able to get over it,” Moon said. “I wrote a letter to his wife and told her about it. How he had talked about how much he loves her and loves his children.”
After Germany surrendered, young lieutenants like Moon remained in high demand. The Allies planned on invading Japan next. Moon, now 97, was put on a ship headed west.
“I tell you one thing. Nobody will get an argument out of me as to whether it was right or wrong to do that (drop the bomb), because I said it was right. I'm here today, because of that,” Moon said. “We were scheduled to be a D-day unit for the invasion of Japan, which was scheduled for the first day of November of 1945. All the key issues and the planning figured, I was told later, for casualties on that day were 250,000 Americans.”
Earl Depner was flying his beloved P-51 Mustang on a fighter sweep into Germany ahead of advancing Allied troops in 1945 when a flock of Me-109s dove in through a deck of clouds.
Even late in the war, the Me-109 was a deadly foe. Nearly as fast as the Mustang, it carried deadlier guns than its American rival.
A 20 mm shell detonated near the nose of his fighter, destroying its 12-cylinder Merlin engine and turning the 465-mph Mustang into an overweight glider. Depner muscled the dying plane onto a path toward Allied lines.
At 100, Depner remembers the events that followed with crystalline clarity.
“By that time I had disconnected my oxygen mask and my radio and my seatbelt and jettisoned the canopy of the airplane. All this time I was losing altitude. I finally tried to get out,” he said. "The wind blew me back to the cockpit. So, I stood up on the seat and jumped out.”
Depner’s head slammed into the tail of the plane as he pulled the ripcord on his parachute. He was unconscious for the fall to the Earth.
“I came to dangling in my parachute harness, three feet off the ground my parachute caught up above in the tree kept me from hitting the ground … The next thing I remember was some bad guy said he's an American. So I look up and here is one of our American soldiers.”
Depner wound up hospitalized for seven broken ribs. The downing was one of 100 missions he flew in the war, most of those in a P-51 he named after his hometown in Montana, the Billings Belle.
He went on to fight in Korea and logged 24 years in uniform.
But Depner said he’s no fan of war.
“War is hell. And that's my attitude,” he said. “Now I want to see peace prevail.”
Are you a World War II veteran or know of one? Send your story to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: Franklin Moon passed away on Nov. 3, 2019.
Gazette journalists Parker Seibold, Jessica Snouwaert, Evan Ochsner and Devon Martinez contributed to this report.