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A WAR TO REMEMBER? : They are fewer now. Those who bore witness to WWII are passing, and with them, the truth about its triumphs and tragedies. Now, with the country so different than when they fought, they don't want to fade away.

August 10, 1995|GARY ABRAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fifty years ago they were masters of the universe, the young American veterans of World War II. Fresh from triumphs in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, they came home from making history, glad to be alive and civilians again. In the half century since, that remarkable generation has often seemed eternal, at least to their children and grandchildren.

But in this 50th anniversary year of Allied victory, that once comforting fallacy is being relentlessly exposed as another postwar illusion. Indeed, the passing of the World War II generation has been a poignant--if frequently unspoken--motif in the countless commemorations of "the Good War," which ended with Japan's surrender on Aug. 14, 1945.

Both the statistics and the veterans themselves confirm that time's sniper fire is thinning their ranks at a quickening rate, a pace that is expected to climb dramatically after the turn of the century.

As this last act of the war unfolds, many of America's surviving veterans apparently have taken little comfort in this year's feats and oratory.

Hometown parades, TV specials and praise by politicians young enough to be their children have failed to ease gnawing concerns about their legacy. Unafraid of sounding like old fogeys, some of them have sharp words for younger generations, asserting that their successors have only the haziest notions of the war's cost in death, fear and disrupted lives.

Perhaps, surprisingly, some even question whether their generation will be remembered at all in a country that has changed beyond recognition since V-J Day.

One thing is certain: They are not willing to go peacefully--at least not yet.

First, the numbers: During World War II, some 16.5 million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces, including 406,000 who died in battle and from other causes, according to the Veterans Administration.

Last year, in its most recent estimate, the VA reported that about 8.1 million remained alive, including 832,000 in California. Their median age was 72.1. By the year 2000, the VA projects that the number of living World War II veterans will decline to 5.6 million.

In the new millennium, the agency forecasts a dramatic increase in the tempo of mortality. By the year 2010, the agency estimates that just more than 2 million veterans will still be living, median age 87.

"The people who witnessed all this [World War II] are passing away," says Kathleen Krull, a 43-year-old baby boomer and San Diego author. "I think more and more families now have no one old enough to remember the war."

The knowledge that "such an enormously earth-shattering event is edging away from consciousness" was the chief impetus behind her new book, "V is for Victory: America Remembers World War II" (Random House), she explains. "I kept running into kids who were 11, 12, 13, 14 years old who didn't know anything about the war."

Aimed primarily at young readers, the book--heavily illustrated with photos, posters and newspapers of the era--is designed, according to the flyleaf, "to inspire grandparents and parents to pass on their own stories." Krull adds that her sense of the war's importance grew as she worked on the book. "It occurred to me that every family in the world was influenced by World War II," she says.

Yet Krull stresses that the book is not simply an exercise in patriotic nostalgia. It does not, she says, "sugarcoat" the war's dark and ghastly aspects, including the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Despite such efforts as the one by Krull, some veterans wonder if younger generations care much about the war and about them. In gloomier or crotchety moments they may also question whether today's fragmented families, communities and institutions are capable of retaining any vision of the past.

Former Marine and best-selling author William Manchester, for one, thinks that "younger Americans don't have time for us. . . . I think they're all rather bemused by the 50th anniversary observations. . . . We thought if we survived the war we would be remembered."

Manchester, whose works include an account of the Pacific War titled "Goodbye, Darkness," suffered a head wound on Okinawa.

In a society where memory and history are respected--even treasured--"the broad reach of the generations can be astonishing," says Manchester, 73. For instance, "J.E.B. Stuart's widow taught my mother in Sunday School," he reports, referring to the Civil War's reckless and daring commander of Confederate cavalry, killed in 1864.

Manchester's point may be amplified with two other examples: The last Civil War veteran died in 1958, aged 112. The last veteran of the Spanish-American War died in 1992, aged 106.

Other veterans seem less sensitive than Manchester to the regard in which they are held. Former American Legion official Robert E. Lyngh, 75, notes that the many conflicts--from Korea and Vietnam to the Persian Gulf--the United States has been involved in since World War II may have eroded that war's distinction.

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