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As ranks dwindle, WWII veterans' stories sought

Organizations rush to preserve the personal histories of the aging Greatest Generation.

NEW ORLEANS - They were a swashbuckling lot - parachuting behind enemy lines, charging onto sandy beaches as bullets whizzed by, liberating countries from a totalitarian grip.

They jitterbugged the nights away, sang about faraway sweethearts, and painted the noses of their B-17 bombers with bawdy pinups.

And now, they're dying off, and with them the memories that defined what has been called the Greatest Generation.

As their ranks shrink, the National World War II Museum is one of several organizations rushing to preserve the personal accounts of veterans. Other such efforts are sponsored by the Library of Congress and the U.S. Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project.

Once 16 million strong, U.S. veterans of World War II are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day and now number about 2.5 million, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.

"I think that's low now," said Martin Morgan, historian for the World War II Museum in New Orleans of the number of vets dying each day. "But judging by the passing of the World War I veterans, we're predicting they will all be gone by 2020."

Reunions tell the story of the decline.

The PT boat organization Peter Tare Inc., for example, held its last reunion in 2007 with only 16 members after meeting since 1947.

"I miss the reunions," said William Paynter, 91, who commanded both a PT boat and a squadron in the South Pacific. "But age is catching up with us, and time is running out."

Frances Hoffman, 85, who now sells tickets at the World War II Museum, saw a recruiting poster for the Women's Marine Corps in 1943.

Hoffman, one of four daughters, wanted to serve her country, and persuaded her shocked father to agree to her enlistment.

"I went through basic training at Camp Lejeune; it was new then," said Hoffman, who still greets fellow Marine vets with a rousing "semper fi."

The World War II museum has a small television studio where it records everything on high definition video, said spokeswoman Clem Goldberger. In addition there are four museum historians who travel the country "almost continuously," collecting histories, she said.

The museum has more than 3,000 histories. It is now collecting based on forthcoming displays, such as the Battle of the Bulge, Goldberger said.

"In the past an epoch would end and the records were usually small," Morgan said. "Where are the oral histories for the veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, even World War I? Here we will preserve this history. We want to be certain that we get it in time to preserve it."

Many veterans bring families to see the museum's treasured relics of what for many were the most meaningful years of their lives. Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the museum averaged about 300,000 visitors a year. It's about 180,000 now.

Founded as the D-Day Museum by the late University of New Orleans author and historian Stephen Ambrose in 2000, and designated the nation's official World War II Museum by Congress in 2004, the museum has outgrown its original vision as a small facility to store war memorabilia. It began with exhibits focusing on the Normandy invasion, then expanded to include the war in the Pacific.

The museum, funded by state, federal and private money and grants, recently began a $300 million expansion. When completed, its seven buildings will cover almost six acres.

Visit the National World War II Museum at