Jack Adams still remembers straining to crank down the flaps of his flak-riddled B-26 bomber as it landed in England after an air raid over Belgium during World War II.
The 92-year-old lifelong Bridgeton resident can still picture the crew struggling to hand-pump down the landing gear of the damaged plane, the Mission Belle.
And Adams recalls what happened when the Mission Belle finally touched down, and the pilot pulled the emergency brake to bring the speeding war machine to a halt.
“It spun like a top,” Adams said.
Now, people can learn about Adams’ participation in World War II: He recently became the 102nd veteran to give an oral history of his wartime experiences to the Millville Army Air Field Museum.
While the museum takes those histories from veterans of all conflicts, it is especially seeking men and women who served in World War II. The reason: The ranks of the so-called Greatest Generation are thinning.
“There is a sense of urgency,” said museum Vice President Bob Trivellini.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 16 million veterans survived World War II, which ended in 1945. The number now stands at slightly more than 1 million.
Statistics predict about 617 of those veterans will die daily this year. The department estimates the last of the World War II veterans will be gone in 2036.
The latest statistics available for New Jersey’s veterans are from the 2010 U.S. Census. That count shows that of the 425,000 veterans in the Garden State, only about 8 percent, or 33,557, participated in World War II. Millville’s museum is not the only facility scrambling to get memories from the World War II veterans.
While the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum also takes contributions from veterans of all conflicts, Curator Nina Rinalli admits that opportunities regarding World
War II veterans are declining. She said she is sifting through thousands of pieces of memorabilia ranging from goggles to love letters. She is reaching out to the veterans who donated the materials to get their personal stories.
“Those are really neat and special to us,” Ranalli said. “You can buy all kinds of World War II goods on eBay if that’s how you want to build a collection. The monetary value is not as valuable to us as the personal memorabilia.”
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has a large collection of oral histories.
Museum spokeswoman Rachel Haney said it is increasingly difficult to get those stories, not only because of the dwindling number of veterans, but also because of competition from smaller museums, such as those in Millville and Cape May County. Many veterans who give their oral histories to one museum are not likely to repeat the tales for another museum, she said.
A group of World War II veterans gathered recently at the Millville Army Air Field Museum to give their oral histories. They were for years reluctant to relive what they went through.
“We could never explain it,” said William Hogan, 93, of Millville, who served as a tail gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps and spent time in a German prisoner-of-war camp after bailing out of his damaged B-24 bomber in May 1944.
“My kids don’t even know,” Edward Turner, 88, of Leesburg, Maurice River Township, said of his experiences on board the USS Bataan.
In fact, the veterans said they never even have listened to the oral histories they gave to the museum.
The Millville Army Air Field Museum began its oral history program in 2001 in partnership with Millville High School. The project, which involves student interviewers, has been featured on The History Channel. All of the museum’s oral histories are part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.
Recently, Adams sat in the museum facing a camera that filmed him as he answered questions Trivellini posed. He recalled being drafted in June 1942 and being sent to Fort Dix and other bases for training before arriving in England on the Mission Belle, which took its name from a line in a Gene Autry song.
Adams flew 67 missions in the Mission Belle, with one of the highlights being the bombing of German fortifications in Normandy just minutes before troops hit the beaches on D-Day. The 1940 Bridgeton High School graduate won several commendations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Once discharged, Adams said, he returned home to Bridgeton and went back to work in the Owens-Illinois glassmaking plant, where he worked for 42 years.
Adams sometimes struggled to remember all the details of his adventures, but said he hoped he told enough to make his story interesting for those who listen to it.
Walt Johnson, 89, of Millville, thinks he knows how Adams and other veterans feel about telling their war stories.
“There were a lot of things that happened,” said Johnson, who served in an infantry unit. “There were a lot of bad times and a lot of good times. I liked the good times.”
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