Watt Hill doesn’t think he has much of a story to tell about World War II.
“I went to Europe as a P-38 pilot. I was only in the service a year and a half during the war. I don’t think I earned glory or fame or anything like that,” he adds. “And I’m getting kind of rickety now.”
“I didn’t really fight a war until 25 years later when I went to Vietnam and flew A-37s close air support for 194 missions. That was my real combat, and I don’t think anybody really gives a damn about Vietnam.”
Nonetheless, Hill agreed to sit and talk to a Gazette reporter and tell his story because he doesn’t want people to forget World War II.
We at the Gazette are hoping to collect many such stories from World War II veterans here in town. We plan to create an online repository of their oral histories, and share them periodically in the march up to the 75th anniversary of VE Day next spring.
But gathering those stories can be hard. One reason is the shared humility of soldiers like Hill; they are not inclined to toot their own horns much, because so many of them gave so much. Sixteen million to be exact.
Collecting their stories is also challenging because many of the denizens of the Greatest Generation never talked about their experience. My grandfather was one of them. A lawyer who entered the army as an enlisted man, and never wanted to be an officer, he worked for the Army for 25 years, serving in Germany, Calif., and Alaska before circling back to Colorado Springs because of a fondness for his time at Camp Carson. But we never heard much about what he did or how he fought. He was more interested in putting the war behind him than reliving it for his grandkids. Eventually, I’m afraid, we learned not to ask.
Another reason it’s hard — and important — to gather these stories is that, alas, the keepers of such stories are fast disappearing from our midst.
According to Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 3% of the 16 million American veterans of the war are alive, and all are in their 90s or beyond.
About 350 WWII vets a day are dying across the country. Arlington Cemetery holds 28 funerals a day. In 2018, Colorado had 7,598 WWII veterans left.
Filmmaker Ken Burns put it this way recently: Every time a World War II veteran dies, it’s like a library burning down.
And some of the vets are worried that memories of the war — its meaning, its lessons, its terrors, its triumphs — are fading fast as its soldiers disappear. A teacher who brought her class to the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs recently asked one of the docents there what W-W-I-I stood for. The docent said he patiently explained that those weren’t “I’s,” but rather Roman numerals representing the number 2, for second world war.
So we need your help. We need to make sure these soldiers’ stories from the most impactful event of the 20th century, the event that liberated the world and turned America into a superpower and global beacon of democracy, is preserved and taught and shared. It might just be our greatest story.
Thousands of families of WWII veterans are starting to realize what might be lost. They have been reaching out to the WWII Museum in New Orleans to try to piece together stories of the fathers and grandfathers who never spoke of the war after coming home. Before it is too late.
Dave Philips, a former reporter at The Gazette who now writes for the New York Times, reported recently that the children and grandchildren of soldiers have been clamoring for their stories, “especially as the 75th anniversaries of the D-Day invasion and the other triumphs of the war’s final years have neared.”
“We have people calling every day to try to find out about their fathers,” Tanja Spitzer, a researcher at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, told Philips. “They regret that they didn’t do anything when their parents were alive. We get a lot of apologizing about it. For them, it is very emotional.”
Honoring those veterans’ sacrifice before they pass from the scene is at the forefront of everything they do at the National WWII Museum, including a $400 million capital campaign to create a lasting tribute to the war generation.
“There’s no time to lose,” said Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, president and CEO emeritus of the museum. “We want to be able to finish and dedicate our expansion while we still have members of the Greatest Generation to thank for their sacrifice and service to the nation and to show the world what they mean to the principle of freedom.”
Spitzer told Philips the National Archives and Records Administration keeps billions of pages of personnel files for World War II vets in a climate-controlled facility in St. Louis.
Watt Hill’s files are in there.
“I was a California boy,” Hill told me. “And I went off to the World War II right out of high school, and I got divorced from real society.
“Thirty-one years in the Air Force, it’s a different life. Trust me. It’s a different world.”
I asked Watt if the experience was foundational for him, the way it was for so many GIs, the superstructure on which he built the rest of his life.
His answer is a reminder of the greatest thing about the greatest generation, the thing many of us descendants of those vets are still benefiting and learning from, in addition to the freedom they secured.
“I’ve got greater fame than being a World War II vet I think because I married a British girl right after the war. I was 21 years old when I got married. She was 17, and we’ve been married for 73 years. For me, that’s not only the better part of the story, it’s a better part of life.”