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Vanishing heroes: Our WW II veterans are disappearing

June 08. 2013 1:30AM

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., died last Monday at age 89. He was the last remaining World War II veteran in the U.S. Senate. He died three days before the 69th anniversary of D-Day, which was marked by memorial ceremonies and media interviews with survivors of the greatest military assault in human history. Those men are universally in their 80s and 90s. A man who landed in Normandy as an 18-year-old private on June 6, 1944, would be 87 today.

The Allies landed 156,000 troops on 50 miles of beach in fewer than 24 hours. By the end of the day, 9,000 of them were killed or wounded. Within five days of the invasion, 326,000 Allied troops had passed through Normandy into the heart of the Nazi-occupied Europe. That is about half of the entire population of Boston.

The men who returned from that invasion and the subsequent liberation of Europe and Asia were among the veterans who reshaped America after the war. They destroyed the Wermacht and the empire of the rising sun, then came home, settled down and helped invent the modern world.

No one knows exactly how many D-Day veterans are still among us. The National World War II Museum in Washington, D.C., puts the figure between 8,000 and 60,000, and falling fast. We lose an estimated 600 WW II veterans every day.

The war ended 68 years ago. Life expectancy in the United States in 1945 was 63.6 years. The war was literally a lifetime ago. And in all that time, we still have not collected all of the stories. We never will. There are tales of bravery and heroism, of kindness and sacrifice, that will never be told. Some stories, though, are untold but retrievable. They live in the memories of frail men and women passing their remaining days in modest homes, retirement communities and VA hospitals. They are stories you could have for the asking, if only you would. You might want to ask, before it's too late.

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