As Living WWII Vets Dwindle, Memories of an Important Legacy Live on
By Stephanie Weldy, Marin Independent Journal, Posted: |
World War II veteran and former Novato mayor Jim Henderson holds the Silver Star Medal, which he earned while serving in Europe. (Alan Dep — Marin Independent Journal)
Jim Henderson knows time is short. The 92-year-old former Novato mayor and councilman and Silver Star recipient watched his brothers in arms killed by his side in combat. Now, he’s facing his comrades’ deaths once again as the world’s World War II veterans age.
“I guess it means that era and that generation is not going to be around anymore,” Henderson said, reflecting on the loss from his Novato home on Friday. “That era has escaped us.”
From 1941 through 1945, 16 million American men and women, including many from Marin, served the nation during World War II. It’s been 70 years since Japan formally surrendered and ended the war, and only an estimated 847,000 American veterans who served are still alive to tell their stories, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Next year the count is expected to drop to 696,000.
“I think it’s nationwide they’re losing the World War II guys, I think 5,000 a year or more,” said San Rafael resident Jim VonBima, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Marines and a longtime member of Marin’s American Legion Post 37. “Most of the ones in our post have all passed away. I’ve been a member of the organization for 50 years and when I first joined, we had over 300 members — most fought in World War II and Korea. We might now have 25 (World War II veterans) left.”
With roughly 492 veterans of World War II dying each day across the country, the scramble is on to record the personal memoirs of those who served; veterans’ organizations are suffering declining membership numbers, prompting many local posts to permanently shut their doors, and a new generation of veterans are ushering in a new narrative.
Henderson’s story is far from lost. His actions in November 1944 helped prolong the life of an infantry brother — Henry Bryan, from Tennessee — while the men served in the 104th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. It also earned him the Silver Star, the third-highest military combat decoration. Both men were serving the mortar platoon with the 413th Infantry Regiment. Henderson was just 21.
The regiment was assisting taking the German city of Frenz, amid a raining of mortar shells and enemy fire, only months before the Germans would concede. Bryan was digging a hole to set a mortar, when shrapnel from a mortar shell struck the man’s backside, striking his tail bone and rendering him temporarily paralyzed, Henderson said.
“When they come in, they come in fast,” he said. “It’s just a swooshing noise, and when you hear that swooshing noise, you hardly have time to do anything. He had his torso to the back of where the shell exploded.”
There wasn’t the time to analyze the situation, and Henderson recalls just running to his comrade. Despite shells still falling around them, Henderson remembers grabbing his friend and beginning to drag him to safe cover. Another man eventually helped Henderson move the man to a safe haven, where a medic soon came to treat him. ‘You just do it’
Henderson, a former Novato mayor and councilman, brushes off receiving the Silver Star medal for his gallantry in action. Though starkly able to recall the years, months and dates of important regiment maneuvers throughout his time of service, he only recalls being bestowed the medal sometime in 1945. What had been done, had been done by that point, he said. “You just do it; (Bryan) would’ve done it for me,” Henderson said.
With recent efforts to document personal war stories, such as Henderson’s, through efforts like the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project — which began preserving veteran stories in 2000 — the hope is that many stories will not be lost. But the declining numbers of World War II veterans are affecting veterans organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The groups have been struggling to maintain membership. The American Legion touted 3.3 million members nationwide at its 1947 peak and now has 2.3 million members. The Veterans of Foreign Wars had 2.2 million members across the United States at its 1992 high and has declined to 1.3 million.
Randi Law, communications manager at the VFW’s Missouri headquarters, said the passing of World War II veterans is likely a reason for the downturn. It’s probably also due to fewer citizens serving in the military as in past decades, she said.
“Younger members are joining but less than 1 percent serve today,” Law said. “Back in World War II, there was a draft. If you were an able-bodied man, you go to war. It’s not like that today, it’s an all-volunteer force. Less than 1 percent serves. It seems natural numbers would be fewer.”
Instead of joining the groups, younger veterans are returning home from service and turning to finding jobs, obtaining higher education and focusing on families, said Matthew Herndon, director of membership at the American Legion headquarters, in Indiana. There are also many more resources available to younger veterans, he said.
“Before, there was nothing there for the veterans to assist them with reintegrating them into civilian society,” Herndon said. “Now with many things out there, you could attribute that.”
Sean Stephens, Marin’s veterans service officer who served in the Army in Afghanistan from 2007 through 2009, agreed that younger veterans are involved in an array of activities, keeping them from joining veterans groups.
“Younger vets don’t have the time, they’ve already got a family established,” he said. “Husband and wife are working. They have young children. Some posts have two meetings a month. Myself, I’m 48 but have a 4-year-old. I got married right when I got home (from service). I have either soccer, or drop-off, baseball, I’ve got a stepson at Redwood (High School). It’s hard to commit at an organization.”
A Greenbrae family is helping document the stories of Marin veterans, including those who fought in World War II. Their oral history project is being chronicled onto the website, “Honoring Our Marin Veterans.” The project was started by 20-year-old Nicholas Elsbree back when he was a 15-year-old sophomore at Marin Catholic High School.
With Elsbree now off to college, his mother, Mary, now largely runs the site, which dedicates web pages to individual veterans and their war stories. Though the family has documented over 150 stories, they still seek more Marin veterans with stories to share and individuals willing to interview and document the memoirs.
Remembering their stories is imperative, Mary Elsbree said. “So many veterans are dying at a very fast rate and we really need to learn the history to go forward in the future,” she said.