Posted: Apr 29, 2014 6:43 PM CDT
Updated: Apr 29, 2014 6:46 PM CDT
(KCEN)) — In roughly the time it takes to read this article, somewhere another WWII veteran will pass away.
Many of them are in their 90’s now, and just about every two minutes, one of these precious American treasures dies, many of them with a story yet to be told.
“I can see that day just as plain as if I was sitting in that room right now,” says Navy veteran Ben Russell.
It’s December 1941, and Russell is aboard the USS Phoenix when the Japanese turn Pearl Harbor into a fiery caldron.
“It was just unreal, and finally, we started to get in our heads that this was real,” Russell says.
When he makes it to the main deck, he sees the explosions and watches thousand die, as the USS Arizona and other ships and battleships plunge into the Pacific Ocean.
“The ship had been blown in half,” says Russell, “”We realized then that we were at war.”
In all, Russell would spend five years years fighting at sea, with only a 3 1/2 month respite ashore.
Fast forward to June 1944.
It’s D-Day, and allied forces invade Normandy.
Army paratrooper Bob Bearden is among them.
He breaks through German troops that surround his regimental commander.
On their next movement, Bearden is soon taken prisoner.
“There was hardly enough air to breathe in one of those German boxcars as prisoners, they stuffed so many of us in there,” Bearden says.
Meanwhile, the lethal American Air Force bombs the German railway he’s trapped on.
Bearden says, “It had to be the most horrifying experience one can have.”
Two months later, his mother receives a telegram, telling her that he has gone missing in action.
“It was probably reported worse than it was,” Bearden says.
He was freed seven months later at 98 pounds, and when he first called home, his sister had a surprise.
“It was such a shock to know that I had become an uncle, and I knew I would never forget that,” says Bearden.
Not everyone was as lucky, like young Billy Blanchard.
“He was killed, and he was my best friend,” says Bearden as he takes a long pause.
He says he owes it to troops, like Billy, to live life to the fullest.
“I watched so many of them go, and they were just as much, or more heroic than I ever was,” he says with tears in his eyes.
91-year old Bearden even recently went snowboarding in their honor.
He says, “I lost so many associates and friends, I had to look back and wonder why them and why not me?”
About 20 WWII veterans call the William R. Courtney Texas State Veterans center in Temple home, and one woman has made it her mission to learn their stories.
“Things that you learned about in the books and everything is right here,” says Amanda Ferguson, a post-911 veteran herself.
Twice a month, she and her kids visit veterans of all eras, as they share about their military experiences.
“It’s important that we learn it for ourselves,” she says.
Those memories are quickly fading, as WWII veterans, once 16 million strong, die at a rate of 555 per day, with just over a million remaining.
Peggy Allen lost her father, “Bus” Glover, two years ago and has watched the small Texas town of Florence lose many, many more.
“Things that kept Florence going have now disappeared,” says Peggy.
Even the iconic “Kissing Soldier,” Glenn Mcduffie, passed away last month, once photographed kissing a nurse to celebrate the war’s end.
Russell has his own way of staying in touch with friends long gone.
Every day as he strolls down the hall and past an old photo of Pear Harbor comrades, he looks at it and says, “Howdy boys.”
“I just can’t let it go,” says Russell.
Learn More About Ben Russell and Other WWII Veterans Here
Learn More About Bob Bearden and his Book Here