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80 years after D-Day, the number of WWII veterans is dwindling

Post-Bulletin - 6/4/2024

Jun. 4—ROCHESTER — Names have power.

In the case of Jerry Williams of Rochester, his name powerfully has tied him to his uncle, another Jerry Williams who, on June 6, 1944, found himself part of an invasion force in France.

"When I was born in September 1943, he was in England and part of the group that was doing training for what eventually became June 6, 1944," Williams said of his uncle, by then a sergeant who trekked from France to Germany as part of the Fifth Infantry "Red Diamond" Division.

Most of what Williams learned about his uncle, he said, came from old newspaper clippings about the division, a few conversations with his reluctant uncle and some letters he sent home during the war.

With Thursday being the 80th anniversary of D-Day — and participants in the invasion likely being 18 years old or older at the time — then veterans involved in the historic storming of beaches in France would be 98 today, at the youngest.

According to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, at the end of fiscal year 2023, there were 294,232 veterans in Minnesota. Of those, only 3,575 were from World War II, and that number is falling fast.

For anyone looking to get first-hand accounts of the battle — of World War II — the time to talk to those veterans is now.

Mike Pruett was part of the Soldiers Field Memorial Committee in Rochester and helped lead — and take photos — for the 10 Southeastern Minnesota Honor Flights from 2008 to 2012. His father signed up at age 17, feeling it was better to fight overseas than on the U.S. mainland.

His father, he said, watched as bombs fell on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"They don't want to talk about what they did during the service," Pruett said of the many Greatest Generation veterans he's met. "When they got back, they went to work. They didn't have time to think about what happened in the war."

The ones who returned, he said, often felt unworthy of being the ones to survive.

"They didn't have psychologists or psychiatrists," he added.

Williams said while he wanted to learn more about what his uncle lived through, those talks just never happened.

"We never had those kinds of conversations," Williams said. "It's something I regret, not initiating those conversations. I'm sad about that, but proud to wear that name and learn about his exploits."

What he did learn is that his uncle knew, based on events happening in Europe at the time, that he was going to be drafted at some point. So he joined the Army in 1940.

He served as a clerk in Iceland, then was stationed in Ireland before moving to England where he helped with training for a large-scale invasion, the invasion that would become D-Day.

While his uncle has since died, Williams took an old photo of his older namesake and created a button that he wore while helping lead veterans on five Honor Flights.

One veteran, a man from Cresco, Iowa, said he'd been on a repair ship on the other side of the island when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"He said if you thought about the biggest fireworks show you've ever seen, multiply that by 10,000," Williams said.

That veteran spent months — the majority of his time in the Pacific Theater — on a ship, going from vessel to vessel fixing things that had broken. He told Williams sailors like himself played an important part, saying, "We were boys from the farm. We knew how to fix things."

His uncle did talk about how people from his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, left for the war and never came home. It was an occurrence that everyone at the time had.

Years later, Williams said, his father, who did not serve because he worked in an industry vital to the defense effort, told Williams he could not buy a Japanese car.

"My dad said he had too many friends at the bottom of Pearl Harbor," Williams said.

Williams said he was struck by how humble even the most decorated veterans would be at the memorial.

Another veteran he met during the Honor Flights, Williams said, a retired lieutenant colonel who was wheelchair bound, made a point to get out of his chair at the memorial in Washington in order to stand and salute the memory of his fellow soldiers.

And while 10 Honor Flights took more than 1,000 veterans to the memorial in Washington over the years, he worries that they'd have trouble filling one airplane with World War II veterans today.

"Before that history gets erased, I hope people have those conversations with their family members," Williams said. "If I could have 12 hours, I'd sit face-to-face with my uncle, my namesake. I'd talk to him less about the exploits but more about his state of mind, what he was feeling."

Williams added, "But soon it's lost and gone forever, that opportunity."

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