They are dying at the rate of more than 1,000 per day. And with them are their memories of a time, place and events that posed one of the greatest challenges to world history and freedom in the modern era.
They are the veterans of World War II.
Now the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center is trying to capture their stories as part of its Veterans Oral History Project. Upon completion it will serve as "a national registry of veterans' interviews and experiences, recorded and achieved as a lasting first hand account of those who fought for our nation at war."
Towards that goal, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8), who has supported the project since its inception in October 2000 and serves as the senior Democrat on the U.S. House committee that funds the project, conducted interviews at Hollin Hall Senior Center last Friday morning. Many of those who participated are active in the Center's Military History Committee.
"This is all about the future. Each generation has to climb on the shoulders of the past generation to learn what they went through. Everyone we interview has children, grandchildren and many have great grandchildren. This enables them (veterans) to leave a legacy. It will be a great wealth for our nation," Moran said.
THE INTERVIEWS at the Center were an extension of those conducted during the dedication of the World War II Memorial in May. The Center interviews concentrated on veterans residing in Northern Virginia.
As explained in the project's brochure, the goal is to collect "stories from men and women from all branches of service ... with an emphasis on World War I, World War II, ... Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars."
The project also documents the contributions of civilians during those conflicts, such as war industry workers and medical personnel/volunteers who supported the armed forces. It is an audio and video recording of personal wartime experiences.
Moran's initial interview last Friday was with the co-chair of the Center's Military History Committee, Shelia Melville who served in Great Britain's Women's Royal Navy Service, known as the WREN's. Her experiences began before the war officially commenced in 1938 and well before America's formal entrance on December 8, 1941.
"We knew very well how serious it was well be before the war actually started. There should have been a lot more controversy about the Munich accords than there was. But, that was before Churchill, Chamberlain was prime minister," she said.
"My father was a doctor and he lost 90 nursing aides because he had hired World War I veterans who were immediately called up when Hitler started. All this was in 1939," Melville said.
"As soon as Dunkirk happened we knew that invasion of Great Britain was a distinct possibility. Churchill was the one and only person who brought everyone together," she said. "That was true leadership," Moran added.
Moran then asked Melville why she chose to serve as a woman in such a full military capacity rather than in more of a support role.
"We had national service. Every male and female registered for service at age 16. It didn't necessarily have to be in the military but service was required of everyone in some capacity," Melville said.
Melville chose the British Navy and enlisted at 17, as soon as she was eligible. As for her assignment as a WREN, that was the Navy's doing, according to Melville. "The Navy chose the Air Gunnery Service. I was very good at recognizing air craft," she said.
When it came to her last day in the WREN's after World War II she told Moran, "It was very sad in a way. My last job was to teach men to do a woman's job." The British discharged its military based on age and service.
FOLLOWING THE WAR Melville went to Dublin University for two years and then transferred to Edinburgh University in Scotland. She came to the United States because she had fallen in love with the culture through her exposure, at age 13, to American movie stars.
She applied for a visa that specified she wanted to come to North Carolina or Virginia. "I had to wait three years," she said.
On her first day in the U.S. she met her husband who had escaped from France but was eventually caught and imprisoned by the Germans in North Africa. "He eventually bought his way out through corrupt guards and got here aboard a Portuguese merchant ship," she said.
THE SECOND INTERVIEWEE that day was a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corp's 12th Air Force. A native Philadelphian, Eli Jaffe is also an active member of the Center's Military History Committee. He and Melville traveled to Washington, D.C., together Memorial Day weekend to attend the dedication ceremonies for the new memorial.
"I was a teenager during the depression years. Times were pretty bad. There were hardly any jobs. I worked for a tailor delivering clothes earning $3 a week," Jaffe said. "The Army was paying more."
Jaffe joined the Army in 1940 after graduation from high school. "Typical of the Army they sent me to Florida even though I was from Philly. They could have sent me to Jersey. I was in the Signal Corps stationed at an air field. That's what they called them then, air fields not air bases.
"I was around airplanes and became fascinated with them. So I transferred to the Air Corps," he said to Bryan Spoon, an aide to Moran who is coordinating the project on Moran's staff.
Jaffe went to Louisiana when the 12th Air Force was formed under the command of General Jimmy Doolittle. "He was the kind of man that looked out for his men. He was a true leader," he said.
"When I went overseas I left out of New York on the Queen Mary. She was so fast she didn't have to zig zag to avoid the German submarines. She was faster than they were," Jaffe said.
Throughout the war Jaffe served in Great Britain, North Africa, Corsica, and eventually with the U.S. Army Air Corp's 12th Air Force Bomber Command as a waist gunner and radio operator on a twin engine B-25 Mitchell Bomber. After flying 70 missions, Jaffe was discharged in 1948 as a Tech Sargeant.
He was never shot down and never had to bail out. As a waist gunner in the 57th Bomb Wing, Jaffe was responsible for two 50 caliber machine guns, one on each side of the fuselage. "We only had a crew of six on each plane," he said.
When he returned to Philadelphia he entered Temple University to study pharmacy. Upon graduation he moved to Washington, D.C., because, "I read in a magazine that Washington had the least drugstores per population. I thought it would be a good way to get started," he said.
Over the years he owned three drug stores. He eventually sold them all, went to work for Dart Drug in Virginia and retired from there after 13 years. "I can still be a pharmacist. It's kinda like riding a bike, you never forget," he said.
Since its commencement, thousands of interviews have been conducted and recorded. "Over the past two years, I have been working with staff to promote the project and inform local veterans of the opportunity to contribute their experiences for the historical record," Moran said.
Any area veterans interested in sharing their stories for the project should contact Bryan Spoon in Moran's Reston District Office, 703-481-4339.