World War 2 was important for a plethora of reasons. It was a conflict involving the entire face of the Earth, hence its name, and was partly born of the unsettled issues facing our global society since the Great War, now known as World War 1.
Lasting from 1939 to 1945 and responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, and the deaths of somewhere between 40 and 50 million people, World War 2 veterans are now at least 100 years old (or older). Soon, we’ll have no living witnesses to the terrifying and triumphant events of a war that changed the world forever.
So, how many World War 2 veterans are still alive in 2019? How can we preserve their memories? Why is it important to tell their stories?
How Many World War 2 Veterans are Still Alive in 2019?
In World War 2, 16 million Americans served in the armed forces and according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, less than 500,000 U.S. World War 2 veterans are still alive today. That’s only around 3% of them, and as their age increases, it’s likely that their death rate will continue to increase as well, with an estimated 348 deaths per day.
Do the math and that means in less than five years, even the oldest World War 2 veteran will no longer be around. Currently, the oldest World War 2 veteran is Gustav Gerneth of Germany coming in at an astounding 113 years old.
Even the most celebrated U.S. World War 2 veterans have recently started to pass on. Most notably, Richard Overton, who was honored by President Obama for Veteran’s Day and witnessed everything from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa to Iwo Jima, died in December 2018 at the age of 112.
Following Overton’s death, Lawrence Brooks is now thought to be the oldest surviving World War 2 veteran at 109 years old, but the final days of World War 2 veterans are fast-approaching. So, we must do our best to ensure their legacies remain.
How Can We Preserve the Memories of World War 2 Veterans?
The inevitability that World War 2 veterans will be passing away in the next few years makes preserving their memory an urgent task. So, how can we make sure the stories and namesakes of these brave people are captured and remembered?
The National WWII Museum in New Orleans understands the reality of a declining veteran population. They’re urging people to collect the oral history of a veteran, donate an artifact, or contribute to the museumto help preserve the legacy of what is said to be the Greatest Generation.
Luckily, modern technology makes this process easier than ever. With top of the line cameras in our pockets and the internet making even the furthest connections possible, another organization working toward this goal is the Veteran’s History Project (VHP), mandated by the Library of Congress.
Traditionally, the VHP would gather letters, photographs, and journal entries – which are still the most common among the oldest World War 2 veteran artifacts. But nowadays, we can record audio and video recounting their experiences and veterans of more recent conflicts like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have emails and blogs to document the experience.
Here is an example of YouTube being utilized by to capture the stories of a World War 2 veteranby his grandson. It goes to show that anyone can grab a camera, film a veteran, and share their stories with the world in order to preserve the history of World War 2.
Why Is It Important to Tell the Stories of World War 2 Veterans?
Why should we collect the personal effects of U.S. World War 2 veterans if, on the surface, it seems to only mean something to them or their families? Well, according to the VHP, “Perhaps the most important reason for preservation is that this material aids the efforts of researchers and educators.”
There’s nothing quite like first-hand accounts of experience. For example, take the last time you read a list of facts about a military coup. Chances are, it was a bit boring and hard to understand.
Then think about the last time someone retold a gripping account of their time in a battle zone. You were probably far more into it and understood what happened far more clearly. Well, those who write the history books need something to go on. These stories and journals and intimate details about what it was really like during World War 2 are the best way to teach others.
And probably more important than all the museums and books that will feature the lives of the oldest World War 2 veteran, is the importance of never repeating the atrocious events from the 20th century.
Many complicated developments led to the terrible circumstances of World War 2 and the best way to prevent things like that happening again is to learn why they happened in the first place. Hopefully, then, we can notice harmful patterns and make better choices in the future.