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Sacrifices of World War II veterans can't be overstated

They did not consider themselves heroes. When Japanese forces attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, young men quickly flocked to join the military, volunteering to do their part to help battle a serious threat to our nation and indeed to the entire world.

Women stepped up as well, serving in many support roles in the military and working in factories back home to keep war materials flowing to the front lines.

Many of the men who signed up to serve in World War II were just teenagers, yet soon they would be piloting bombers over hostile territory or jumping out of landing craft while under fire on distant, obscure beaches.

The sacrifices of these veterans, who are part of what we have come to call “The Greatest Generation,” were compelling and remarkable. Many of them would lose their lives before hostilities finally ended in August 1945. In all, more than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. Nearly 292,000 of them died in battle.

The debt we as American citizens owe the men and women can never be fully repaid. Yet it is imperative that we continue to honor those who served and gave so much during a time of true crisis.

To commemorate Veterans Day this year, writers and photographers with the Pamplin Media Group met with and interviewed 20 veterans — men and women — who served in World War II. We wanted to record their stories so a small slice of what they experienced during that historic time can be preserved. And more than that we wanted, in some small way, to honor these individuals whose collective efforts saved the world from an unimaginably dark future.

While we were interviewing these heroes — and make no mistake, that is what they are — for our special section titled “A Salute to World War II Veterans,” we were struck by their grace and humility. Our society holds them in high esteem, yet most of them downplayed their role in the war. Many simply said it was something that had to be done, and despite the risks and the dangers, they were just doing their job.

We admire what they accomplished in the 1940s, and were equally impressed by the level of responsibility and citizenship these veterans continue to exemplify. Even now — perhaps especially now — we are blessed as a nation to have them among us.

There are not a lot of World War II veterans left. The war ended nearly 70 years ago, and, inevitably, age and infirmity has caught up to those who answered the call of duty in the 1940s. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as of late 2014 there are approximately 1,017,000 American veterans of World War II still living. But hundreds are dying every day, and their voices are being lost.

Many of us were more than eager to have the opportunity to help tell the story of these individuals, because some of our own parents (or grandparents) served during World War II as well, and hopefully the love and care our writers, editors, photographers and designers put into this special section shows.

To all the veterans of our armed forces, we salute you. And to the World War II veterans in particular, we hope you realize and understand the reverence with which we honor your efforts on behalf of our country. It does not matter if you were engaged in direct combat or served in a support role far from the front lines. Every assignment was vital to the overall war effort, and all of you are indeed heroes in our book.

We hope our attempt to capture some of your wartime experiences does justice to the sacrifices of you and your fellow veterans, so many of whom — all too many — are no longer with us.

To each of you, thank you for your service.

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