I’m saving my take on “the greatest generation” for another time, but in the new year—which brings the 70th anniversary of some significant World War II events—I want to alert readers to the accelerating rate of attrition among TGG members.
Of my 37 or so nonfiction books, 18 wholly addressed WW II subjects and several others had significant "War Two" content. The first, my operational history of the Douglas SBD Dauntless, was published in 1976. The next three appeared in 1979. Very few of the contributors to those books remain alive today. The last of my Dauntless contributors passed away last year. The only one of 20 Corsair contributors I know to be still living flew F4Us in Central America in the 1970s. At least 31 of the 48 Hellcat contributors have departed the pattern, and 21 of 25 Wildcat veterans. Probably most of those unaccounted for are in fact deceased.
However, attrition among more recent contributors provides a baseline for the growing mortality among the men who lived the events I write about. My 2005 account of the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, titled Clash of the Carriers, was the first treatment of the subject in more than 20 years. At the time of publication one quarter of the veterans I consulted already were deceased.
In 2010 I completed Whirlwind, the first one-volume history of all Allied air operations over Japan. In just five years the mortality had jumped from 25 percent to 40 percent of contributors deceased upon publication. That was unsettling, prompting a prediction that fewer than half the veterans represented in the next book would see it published.
Unfortunately, I was right. When my history of USS Enterprise (CV-6) (“the fightingest ship”) was released in March 2012, 16 of the 30 were gone, or 53 percent. Two more have departed since then: Rear Admiral Jig Dog Ramage (“Rampage without the P”) and Captain Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa. Both were Big E stalwarts. When Jig died in July 2012 he had just passed his 96th birthday, and I was privileged to know him since 1967. Along the way he contributed to three of my books from his vantage as CO of Bombing Squadron 10 in 1944. When I think of leaders, many names come to mind. When I think of Jig, I think: Leader.
Swede was an exceptional naval aviator. He entered combat flying SBDs from USS Yorktown (CV-5) in 1942, receiving a Navy Cross for the Battle of the Coral Sea. Later that year he joined Fighting 10 and defended Enterprise from successive Japanese air attacks during the Battle of Santa Cruz. Credited with seven victories in one mission, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor but received another Navy Cross. He died at 98, enormously respected by all who knew him.
My main point is that none of those books could be written with the same amount of detail today—in the latter case just months later. History has a shelf life, and WW II first-person history is reaching its expiration date. One jarring example: last September I attended the reunion of the American Fighter Aces Association. The median age of the 20 attendees was—ninety. The young sports from Korea were in their early eighties.
Historians should keep another thing in mind: we’re probably losing more than 2,000 WW II vets a day but we cannot assume that those remaining have adequate memories. Two of the most senior Enterprise sailors I contacted declined to be interviewed because they did not trust their memories. Other veterans tend to remember things as they “should have been” rather than as they likely were. That’s why it’s always (always) important to cross check and verify. My motto in such cases: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
Aside from fading and faulty memories, some old timers like to gild the historical lily. There’s a popular email about a P-51 ace who reputedly was shot down, evaded capture, and stole a Focke Wulf 190 to return to freedom. I knew him somewhat, and he was an accomplished story teller. But there was no documentation: nothing about him going MIA in unit records, and no Missing Air Crew Report. Absent an MACR, alarm bells usually start ringing.
Finally some of us gleaned the facts. In talking to the gent’s squadron mates it developed that he had visited a nearby RAF base on the continent around VE Day and borrowed the FW to show off for his pals.
For other military subjects, bear in mind that the clock is running almost as fast for Korean War vets, who probably average about eight years younger than WW II folks. And, hard to believe, we began slogging through the Vietnam mire in 1964, nearly half a century ago.
In conclusion, I’ll offer three words of advice to budding interviewers: