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Race to record memories of World War II veterans gains momentum

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The late Coleman Benedict left behind volumes of meticulously detailed memoirs, including photos, postcards and other documents, from his years of service as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during WWII. The items are perfect examples of what the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project collects and preserves. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Ethyle Benedict reads for her first time the memoirs of her late husband of 50 years, Coleman Benedict, who served as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during the Second World War. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Coleman Benedict's war memoirs contain dozens of photographs from his years of service as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during WWII. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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The late former Allied counterintelligence officer Coleman Benedict wrote some of his war memoirs in "captured" notebooks of German soldiers. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Coleman Benedict served as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during World War II. He passed away in 2005, leaving behind volumes of meticulously detailed memoirs of his war experiences, including photographs and other documents. The items are perfect examples of what the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project collects and preserves. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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The late Coleman Benedict's memoirs contain dozens of photographs from his years of service as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during WWII. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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The late Coleman Benedict's memoirs include many photographs from his tour of duty in the Second World War. Benedict was a counterintelligence officer for the Allies and passed away in 2005. Handwritten notes on the back of these photos read: "Eupen, Belgium 18 Oct. 1944" (left) and "Picture is designed to prepare you for the shock when you see me in person. I have grown fat, note heavy jowls. Idstein, Oct. 1945" (right) (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress collects and preserves the stories of all who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. This photo shows WWII veteran Donald Patrick Finn shaking hands after receiving the Presidential Unit Citation from his Commanding Officer. Whidby Island, Washington, 1943. (Courtesy of Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1943)

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Ethyle Benedict peruses the memoirs of her late husband of 50 years, Coleman Benedict, who served as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during WWII. It was her first time reading many of her husband's notes. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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The memoirs of Coleman Benedict, who served as a counterintelligence officer during World War II, includes a vast array of documents. This is his ration card from 1945. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Accompanying Coleman Benedict's memoirs are dozens of photographs documenting his years of service as a counterintelligence officer during World War II. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Coleman Benedict served as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during WWII. He passed away in 2005 and left behind volumes of memoirs from his years of service, including many photographs. This photo reads "July '42 Ft. Dix" (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Coleman Benedict served as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during WWII. He passed away in 2005 and left behind volumes of memoirs about his experiences during the war, including photos. This photo reads: "June '42 Grrrr-" (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Coleman Benedict kept meticulously detailed memoirs of his experiences as a counterintelligence officer for the Allies during WWII. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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Coleman Benedict left behind meticulously detailed memoirs of his experiences as a counterintelligence officer during WWII. His notebooks contained tables of contents and numbered pages. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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The late Coleman Benedict left behind volumes of meticulously detailed memoirs, including photographs and other documents, from his years of service as a counterintelligence officer during World War II. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

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The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress collects and preserves the written and oral histories of all who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. The collection includes about 50,000 individual stories and spans every major conflict since World War I. This letter, written by WWII veteran Donald Patrick Finn to his sister Helen, is one example. It is dated May 21, 1941 and can be read in full through the project's website, www.loc.gov/vets/. (Courtesy of Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

Sixty-three years later, George Losio can still hear the machine guns.

He was 22 when he first hit the beach at Leyte Island in the Philippines. Leyte had been held by the Japanese for three years, and in October 1944 the Allies launched an assault to take it back. Losio, new to his battalion, was handed an M1 rifle on his way ashore. But his landing barge sank, taking half his equipment. Losio ended up separated from his battalion.

During 14 months of fighting in the Pacific, Losio had many close encounters with death. He watched in horror as others around him were blown apart. In 1945, he was ordered home, suffering from combat fatigue. He still has nightmares.

Like countless others who served in World War II, Losio didn’t speak about his war experiences for a long time. Now 86, the Farmingdale, N.Y., retiree is finally opening up. For the past year he’s been writing it all down.

“All of a sudden I’m thinking of these things,” Losio said. “I think I’m really doing it for my daughter and my grandchild. So some day I’ll just hand them this.”

Losio is not the only one putting memories to paper. More and more World War II veterans have been sharing their wartime experiences over the last decade, said Tom Weiner, a historian at the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Created by the U.S. Congress in 2000, the project is helping preserve the memories of veterans and the civilians who supported them. With World War II veterans dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, the project is racing against the clock.

“We’re operating with a certain sense of urgency,” said Jessica Maccaro, the project’s spokeswoman. “These are stories that are disappearing at the rate of 1,000 at a time. It’s that impetus, to get these experiences preserved and shared and told before we miss that opportunity.”

Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only about 3 million are left, most in their 80s.

The archives contain firsthand oral histories, interviews, photographs, memoirs, letters, diaries and other historical documents. Some 50,000 individual stories have been collected, spanning every major military conflict from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the largest collection of oral narratives in American history, with 200 to 300 interviews added each week.

World War II stories account for more than 60 percent of the collection.

“Ten years ago this would have been harder for them to do,” Weiner said. Now “there’s a permission by the culture at large to say, ‘You guys did a great deed, tell me about it. I want to hear about it.’”

The project enlists volunteers--friends and family members of veterans or members of the public--through a Web site, www.loc.gov/vets. The site provides links to supply kits, profiles of veterans and instructions on how to conduct interviews. In many cases, the interviews are the first time the veterans have ever opened up and spoken about their experiences.

Weiner says he has heard hundreds of interviews that end with the subjects acknowledging that they had never even told their spouses what they witnessed.

“After four years of war, the country wasn’t ready for guys to come home in 1945 and talk about what they saw in the concentration camps, and what they saw on Okinawa--with thousands of people committing suicide jumping off cliffs--and what they saw in Hiroshima, all these people who had been incinerated,” Weiner said. “I think people just said, ‘OK, the war is over, let’s get on with our lives.’”

For Weiner, the project is personal: Both his parents served in the war, but neither ever spoke about it. They’ve since passed away. He calls his involvement “compensation” for what he never heard from them.

The project also preserves and archives donated items, like the correspondence between Donald Patrick Finn and his sister Helen.

Finn, of Illinois, was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base there, sparking America’s entry into the war. (Finn’s profile, including his letters and diary, can be found on the project’s site.) He would go on to serve as an aviation machinist and a gunner in Australia, Bali, the Aleutian Islands and the Dutch East Indies.

Coleman Benedict is another example. Benedict, a Columbia University classics professor who died in 2005, served in the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps from 1942 to 1946, conducting investigations into suspected espionage and sabotage in Britain, Wales, Belgium, France and Germany.

Benedict witnessed the Normandy landing, the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of St. Lo. He was with the first contingent to enter Russian-controlled Berlin and guarded President Truman at the Potsdam Conference. Benedict kept volumes of meticulously detailed memoirs.

“The nature of my work, which is, for the most part, confidential, sometimes secret, concerns itself primarily with investigation of people--all sorts of people, civilian and military, for all sorts of purposes,” reads one excerpt Benedict wrote on the pages of a German notebook.

Ethyle Benedict recalls that her husband’s memoirs were so secret he didn’t even share them with her. “He wrote it like a dissertation, but it was all for himself,” she said. Such memoirs can now be stored at the Library of Congress and made available to the public.

Sidney Roberts, 86, also saw a lot of action. But Roberts, an MP who served in five major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge, suffered from health problems that hindered him from writing his memoirs. For the past few years, however, he has been sharing his stories with anyone who asks.

“I’m getting old,” Roberts said. “There’s more time in back of me than in front of me. I’m not going to be around much longer. And I’m glad that you people want to know and have a copy of what I did.”

E-mail: cjt2117@columbia.edu