V-J Day anniversary a stark reminder of dwindling World War II vet population
By GARY PETERSON | Contra Costa Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 14, 2015
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — When he was 20, Enrico Cinquini and his 1st Marine Regiment began the long, grueling takeover of Japanese occupied strongholds from New Guinea to Okinawa in some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II.
Now 91 and living in Oakley, Cinquini is as trim as a drill instructor and has remarkable recall of his combat experience — hacking through the steaming, muddy jungles of Cape Gloucester, digging foxholes in the unyielding coral of Peleliu, losing comrades by the score.
"These stories I tell you," he said softly, "they become priceless. Because little by little, we're all going to go."
Friday marks the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, the day Japan surrendered to the Allies and the war came to a merciful end. It is a bittersweet observance in that it serves as a stark reminder that we are rapidly losing veterans who can describe for us, face to face, the human experience of what some call the most momentous event in human history.
According to the World War II Museum in New Orleans, 16.1 million Americans fought in the war. An estimated 855,000 are still alive. Nearly 500 die each day, and fewer than 100,000 will survive to observe the 75th anniversary of V-J Day.
And when they're all gone?
"There's always knowledge that's going to be lost each day we get closer to day zero, when we don't have any more World War II vets," said military historian Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute. "But as we lose firsthand accounts, we gain perspective."
It seems certain our quest for perspective, like our fascination with the war, will outlive the war's participants, and perhaps alter our perception of seminal issues such as the use of the atomic bomb. According to a survey conducted by the World War II Museum, 34 million people in the United States have indicated a strong interest in the war's history. Understandably so.
"World War II was the most lethal event in human history," Hanson said. "Seventy million people (killed) — greater than the black plague, World War I and the Napoleonic wars."
"It's hard to think of a comparable event that affected so many people in so many parts of the world," said Keith Huxen, chief historian for the World War II Museum. "It entered every ocean, every continent. And the truth of the matter is, it doesn't necessarily pass into the night with the last survivor."
If anything, it seems to be gaining momentum. Cable TV outlets devote hours per day to the war, augmenting timeworn storylines with new and creative programming, such as History Channel's "The Secret Nazi UFO Project." Dozens of books, both new and re-issued, can be found on Amazon's Hot New Releases in World War II History page.
"The history books will keep it alive," said Thomas Boyd, who on his 19th birthday had to bail out of the crippled B-24 in which he was a gunner. He parachuted into German-occupied Yugoslavia and eventually made it back into Allied hands.
Now 89, Boyd still fits into his flight jacket. The Sunnyvale resident speaks with the aid of a voice box after a recent bout with vocal cord cancer.
Boyd agrees that World War II was one of the most comprehensively documented events ever. "But there's nothing like getting it from the horse's mouth," he said.
The three World War II veterans interviewed for this story report a paradox. It seems the more programming and books that are produced to feed the apparently insatiable appetite of consumers, the less people seem to understand the war's deeper meaning.
"It's the same old story: Time lessens the real memory," said Pleasant Hill resident Dan Franklin, 88, who was 17 when he had two landing transports blown out from under him at Omaha Beach on D-Day. "My own family is aware because of me. I wear the World War II hat when I'm out sometimes. If it's a young person, it doesn't faze them. No recollection."
Boyd attended a convention last year in which many of the attendees wore hats bearing the distinctive shorthand WWII.
"Somebody wanted to know what WW Eleven meant," he said. "That's where it's getting to."
So yes, the vets are concerned about what will happen when the voices of eyewitnesses fall silent and historians will apply a more clinical perspective to the war's narrative. To illustrate the difference between the two points of view, Hanson, whose father was a gunner on a B-29, gave an example of a historian who wonders why it was necessary to destroy Yokohama three times and a veteran who says, 'Hey, I was on that third mission.' "
The inevitable result will be a certain amount of history that will be challenged, if not revised. That conversation began as the ink was drying on the formal instrument of surrender, marking Japan's capitulation, on the USS Missouri. In the decades that followed, debate has intensified over the practice of bombing civilian populations and unleashing atomic weapons on Japan.
Over the years, President Harry S. Truman, who presided over the end of World War II and the birth of the Cold War, has staged a "comeback" as historians have reached a better understanding of his time in office and how his successors handled similar issues.
More recently, both China and Russia have slowly lifted the veil on their wartime archives, giving the rest of the world a better understanding of the staggering suffering and death their people experienced. Students 50 years from now may regard World War II more as the global event it was instead of a Made in the USA enterprise.
"We've tended to concentrate on World War II as an Anglo-American experience," Hanson said. "Germany had 5 million dead. Japan had 3 million dead. Americans and British had 1/70th of all people who died." Russians and the Chinese, on the other hand, fought bitterly for the very survival of their countries.
"In Russia, they called it the Great Patriotic War," Huxen said. "China in World War II took a real pummeling. Their great achievement was the story of national survival of the Japanese occupation. That's the genesis that has allowed them to build into a world power today."
In turn, the historians say, greater understanding of those countries' suffering could cause a rethink regarding Chinese and Russian leaders we were loath to recognize, much less praise, during the Cold War.
Back to the present, veterans also fear that lessons learned, or lessons that should have been learned, during the epic global bloodbath are already being forgotten. Their common theme: Give peace a chance.
"Members of Congress, who determine if we should go to war or not, should go to war themselves," Franklin said. "Maybe then they'd have a different viewpoint."
"I believe in diplomacy," Cinquini said, "because I've been through the hell of war. People say, 'I know what you went through.' They don't know. If somebody wants to know what it is, they've got to go out into a field and dig a hole on a rainy night, and tell them somebody's going to come out and kill them. Then you'll know what I'm talking about."
Cinquini, Boyd and Franklin know V-J Day in a different context from the 2 million revelers who flooded Times Square, where a sailor kissing a nurse was famously captured on film. The photograph portrayed the occasion as an outpouring of pure, unrestrained joy.
That's because the three veterans were being prepared for the invasion of mainland Japan, during which it was estimated the United States would have suffered 1 million casualties. Japan's surrender in the aftermath of the atomic blasts made that operation unnecessary, leaving the vets, like much of the rest of the world, relieved, thankful and exhausted.
"I had seen what happened at Omaha Beach," said Franklin, who was training in San Diego when he heard the news. "That was a slaughter. They said Japan would be 10 times worse."
Cinquini was on Okinawa, which cost the Allies more than 50,000 casualties to secure, and where the invasion would have been staged.
"I figured I was going to die," he said. "It's hard to explain to you our feelings. All of a sudden we became alive again."
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