The ghosts of those years linger in the hearts of surviving veterans, the political framework of the world and America’s communities, each distinct but tied together by an aging memory of service and sacrifice.
The number of the nation’s living WWII veterans has waned from 16 million to about 1 million, according to the government. But those who are still alive, like Metuchen resident Art Hamilton, harbor tales of the people and events that shaped the globe so long ago.
“We want to make sure that people know — and it’s not me so much — that all of the people who were in that conflict did a noble and incredible thing, and they did it at great cost to themselves and their friends and family,” said Hamilton, who served as a navigator on a B-24 bomber for the U.S. Army Air Forces. The 21-year-old enlistee from Brooklyn saw a lot in the military from early 1942 to his brief return home in 1947.
Hamilton, now 94, flew 31 missions in WWII. During more than 200 hours of combat, he bombed Paris and Berlin twice, along with a number of factories that fueled the German war effort. He even survived several plane crashes.
And loss did not escape him. Ben Love, a pilot whom Hamilton greatly admired, was shot down over Germany and later lynched, he said.
“He parachuted out, and the German peasants were so enraged about being bombed that they beat him to death, which was really an atrocity and a real tragedy,” Hamilton said.
Although the men knew death could creep up on them at any time, fates like those suffered by Love seemed distant, Hamilton said. The end loomed only for others — not for him, he said.
But that didn’t help Hamilton and his crewmen rest easy on nights before raids, when they would quietly lie with worry about the dangers that might stand between them and their next target.
“There’s no such thing as anybody telling you they were never afraid,” he said. “Everybody was afraid.”
In the weeks that led up to D-Day, Hamilton bombed the coast of France more than 10 times to incite confusion among Nazi officials, he said. And when 156,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy — including 9,000 Americans who never left those shores — he was there, ready to light up an inland city in his bomber.
While he could not see the battles on the ground, the earlier air strikes proved effective in the sky, Hamilton said.
“We went in and out without being fired on, and that was practically a miracle at that time in the war,” he said.
The airmen soared in their black-andwhite striped planes that day with the knowledge that a successful offensive could open much of Europe to the Allied forces, he said. Until that point, the airbases visited by Hamilton sat so close that he once ate breakfast at two different outposts in the same morning, he said.
The military painted the planes black and white on the eve of D-Day to avoid friendly fire, Hamilton said.
Although he was a navigator, Hamilton occasionally toggled the switches that unleashed bombs, composed of hell and fury, on targets. But outside of passing fighter pilots, he never saw an enemy or looked at the official records of the blasts in which he took part, he said.
“The thing is, I never saw anybody I killed or hurt or anything,” Hamilton said. “So, I can see how different it must have been to be like the guys on the beach were — face-to-face and hand-to-hand.”
Those soldiers on the ground fought, suffered and sometimes died in vicious clashes, said Ashley Zampogna-Krug, a history professor and co-chair of the Brookdale Community College Center for World War II Studies.
D-Day brought the introduction of a new Allied strategy that veered from the tactical bombings and methods meant to minimize the death toll, an approach that dominated the early stages of the war, Zampogna-Krug said. Instead, troops engaged in head-on, bloody assaults, she said.
“It would be much more direct combat, with the use of more tanks and really confronting the enemy face-to-face,” she said. “From what you read, it would be a much more personal, emotional and brutal kind of fighting.”
The carnage carried a greater vision for the war’s end. Allied leaders hoped their drive on the western front, combined with the Russian Red Army’s campaign to the east, would break the Nazi war machine, Zampogna-Krug said.
“With these two fronts working against Germany, they [were] able to really squeeze Germany and ultimately defeat them,” she said.
So, D-Day marked a related turning point in the war, and an early step toward victory for the Allies, she said, just as WWII left a global imprint that can still be seen today.
The war’s effects gripped American communities, from large urban centers to small-town Main Streets, during and long after combat.
Every church bell rang and factory whistle blew in Freehold on D-Day in a loud show of support from those at home, said Kevin Coyne, local historian and author of a book that chronicled the lives of six WWII veterans from Freehold.
Like most Americans, Freehold residents had good cause for concern. Of the nearly 10,000 people who lived in Freehold Borough and Freehold Township, 1,385 served in WWII, he said.
“Every month, a new allotment would go,” Coyne said. “There would be lots of tears and goodbyes on Court Street, and off they went.”
Many young enlisted men and women worked at the A&M Karagheusian rug mill, he said. As those individuals shifted their responsibilities to those who were not drafted, the mill answered its call to duty and produced waterproof canvas tarps for the military, he said.
Despite the high percentage of young people in military service, Freehold’s agriculture pressed on in the 1940s.
“If you were the only male working on a farm — the only son working on a farm — you got a farm deferment because that was considered vital war work,” Coyne said.
While Freehold gave to the Allied war effort, the battlefield also stole somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 young lives from the community, he said. Frank Bruno, Bruce Springsteen’s uncle, is one of the names that will soon appear on an honor roll of Freehold’s WWII veterans who died in combat, Coyne said.
Bruno died in Okinawa, Japan, in one of the final skirmishes of the war, Coyne added. Years later, Springsteen dedicated an acoustic rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.” to Bruno’s widow during a hometown concert at St. Rose of Lima School in Freehold Borough.
Johnny Bartek, who grew up on Bannard Street, nearly joined the ranks of Freehold’s fallen in WWII. Instead, his story of survival adrift in the South Pacific alongside Eddie Rickenbacker — a World War I veteran who earned recognition as a national hero — became one of Freehold’s bestknown war stories, Coyne said.
Bartek, Rickenbacker and several others went missing during a botched flight to Australia. For days, they floated on three small rafts with just a couple of oranges, nearly no water and a few fishing hooks, Coyne said.
After five days lost at sea, the men opened a Bible that a local minister gave to Bartek before the war, Coyne said. They prepared to hold what they believed was a final prayer service when a large seabird landed on Rickenbacker’s head, Coyne said.
“He reached up, grabbed it and throttled it. They killed it,” he said. “They used his entrails as bait for fishhooks. They caught some fish.”
The group then gathered rainwater and survived for two more weeks. Just as the thought of death became inevitable, Bartek — the kid from Freehold who worked at the rug mill — spotted an airplane and the men were rescued, Coyne said.
“It was a huge national story,” he said, adding that the tale became the basis of the film “Captain Eddie.”
As WWII veterans age, they too have begun to share their stories. Their accounts enrich the records that historians and authors like Coyne maintain, and bring life to the lessons that Zampogna-Krug teaches to her students.
But, most importantly for veterans like Hamilton, tales from the Greatest Generation tell it like it was.
“We have discovered that it’s important for us to get our story out because history is being rewritten, and the idea is to get out there and tell it like it really happened,” Hamilton said.