As we honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day this week, it is worth noting that the number of surviving veterans of World War II is tiny. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only about 16,000 were still alive in 2012, one in 1,000.
At the recent rate of loss, the number of living U.S. veterans from World War II will be down to 8,000 by the end of 2014 — i.e., one survivor for every 2,000 people who served.
The median age of World War II active-duty survivors was 92 in 2011. Charlie Miner Jr., a summer resident of East Hampton, is one of those survivors, and he turned 92 a few months ago. I have talked to him at length in part because I am writing about the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first treasury secretary, Will Woodin, and Miner is the son of Woodin’s eldest daughter, Ann.
Miner went to school in New York City and studied engineering with the Princeton class of 1943. Before he graduated, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and graduated from single-engine flying school in March 1943.
“Because I had an engineering background,” he said, “I was assigned immediately to a sub-depot in Charlotte, N.C., where they rebuilt planes that had crashed in the region. My job was to test-fly the rebuilt planes before they were returned to their home bases. A variety of planes were being rebuilt, so I got flying time in many types of aircraft.”
Miner was married in October 1944, and two weeks later reported for combat training in B-25s at the Greenville, N.C., Army Air Base. The two-engine North American B-25 Mitchell bomber was named after Gen. Billy Mitchell, an advocate of greater air power. The plane is described on the Boeing website as the “most versatile” and “most heavily armed” bomber in World War II. It had a crew of five — a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, radio operator, and gunner. It was distinguished as the aircraft that completed the historic surprise raid over Tokyo in 1942.
After his training, Miner was sent to Europe, where he was instructed by Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots who had been assigned the B-25. While the B-25 was versatile, it could be delicate if flown above the maximum speed, which was 518 kilometers per hour for the earliest model. Miner still wonders about the risk-taking propensity of a few of his instructors:
“Some of those R.A.F. and Italian pilots were daredevils. They didn’t seem to care if they lived or died. The Mosquito was a laminated-wood plane, which meant it could remain undetected by radar and yet break the sound barrier. The pilots loved it. They would dive from 5,000 feet. But in one case, the wooden wing just sheared off. The pilot, of course, went straight down with the rest of the plane and was killed.”
Later models of the Mitchell bomber (B-25A through B-25J) increased the armaments to allow the bombers to shoot back at targets, and the maximum speed was lowered.
When the German army was pushed north in the Italian boot, Miner’s squadron relocated to Fano on the Adriatic, about 150 miles south of Venice. From there they flew about 18 missions at about 15,000 feet over the Brenner Pass in the Alps between Italy and Austria.
The war in Europe ended in May 1945. In July of that year, Charlie was handed a B-25 to fly home. He had to fly indirectly because of the limited range of the planes. The B-25B had a theoretical 3,000-mile maximum range, but only by adding droppable fuel tanks. Such tanks made possible the previously cited surprise Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April 1942. The bombers could take off fast enough to be launched from an aircraft carrier, but could not land safely. So the pilots were told to drop their bombs on Tokyo and then try to find an airport in China.
A combination of unexpected discovery and bad weather resulted in all 16 of the B-25Bs being lost in the raid, but Doolittle’s squadron got out of Japan’s air space and most of the crews survived. Col. James (Jimmy) Doolittle feared he would be court-martialed, but instead, F.D.R. gave him the Medal of Honor and raised him two grades to lieutenant general.
Miner had to bring one of these B-25s back without extra fuel tanks. He had to fly down the West African coast to avoid the North Atlantic squalls and provide for frequent refueling. He flew over to the Ascension Islands, then on to Natal, Brazil, then to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and finally to Savannah, Ga., refueling at each stop.
Safely home with his B-25, Miner went back to civilian life. He first worked for the New York Central Railroad under Willard Place, vice president for finance. From there he worked for the Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation in Darien, Conn., on the concept of building railroad cars with fiberglass-reinforced plastic shells. While the concept eventually worked, the first impact stress test by Pullman failed spectacularly as the experimental cars shattered. Miner reoriented the idea, pioneering the application of fiberglass-reinforced plastics to the building of boats, an idea that succeeded and took over much of the industry.
Miner left the fiberglass business for Wall Street, working first for Rand & Company in the municipal bond department. He then joined Clark, Dodge & Company in the same area. It became part of Dean Witter and later part of Morgan Stanley. Charlie Miner quit the business at nearly 70 years of age.
The toll — of the Depression, of World War II, and just advancing age — on the survivors from Charlie’s generation may be judged by the fact that he was told at his 70th reunion last year that only 125 members of his Princeton class of 1943 are still alive — out of the 630 original members of the class. Fewer than 10 members of his class showed up, and to his disappointment he didn’t know any of them.
The number is now down to 104.
Miner travels to East Hampton every summer from June to September and then returns to Vero Beach, Fla. When congratulated on his success at being a survivor, he falls back on gallows humor. At several places he hangs out, he says, “the average age is . . . deceased.” If you are playing golf for money, he says, “collect when you are 2 bucks ahead because your opponent may not finish the round.”
But despite it all, he says, quoting from a phlegmatic friend vacationing in Florida who was looking at clouds taking over the sky, “It’s better than Massachusetts.”
And better than flying through anti-aircraft ordnance.
John Tepper Marlin, Ph.D., who has lived in Springs since 1981, is chief economist for the Warrior Family Foundation. He is attending D-Day memorials in Normandy, where his uncle, Dr. Willem J. van Stockum, the pilot of a bomber that was shot down, is buried. A tribute and monument by French townspeople there will be made to him and his crew.