Time is accomplishing what the combined forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan could never do: wipe out the generation of Americans who won World War II.
Nearly 16 million U.S. veterans came home after the war ended in 1945. Only about 1.5 million of them are still alive, including about 3,100 in Kentucky. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that these men and women in their 80s and 90s are passing at the rate of 740 a day.
So when I got a call recently from Donald and Mary Jane Roser of Lexington, who both served in the military during World War II and have been married for 65 years, I figured they would have interesting stories to tell.
Donald Roser, 93, was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific, including nearly five months in the Guadalcanal campaign. "I always say I must be going to heaven because I've already been to hell," he said.
Mary Jane Roser, 91, was one of 350,000 women accepted into military service during the war. She joined a new Navy unit called the WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
They grew up only 10 miles apart; he on a family farm that is now part of Masterson Station Park, she in Midway. They graduated from high school in 1937; he at Bryan Station, she as valedictorian of the 14-member class of the old Midway High School.
After two years at the University of Kentucky and an unsuccessful attempt to become an Army aviator, Donald Roser followed his uncle into the Marine Corps two months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After basic training, he went to communications school to learn how to set up battlefield radio and telephone networks.
After sailing to New Zealand and training near the island of Fiji, Roser became part of the invasion force on Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942. He spent the next four months setting up phone lines around the island, making him an easy target for Japanese snipers.
"I never got wounded, even though I got shot at a lot," he said. "They bombed us every day and shelled us every night for months, and we didn't get much sleep and didn't have any food to amount to anything for a while. It was a nasty place."
Roser kept a daily diary during his first six weeks on Guadalcanal. "Expecting Japs to try to make night landing haven't slept much for a week need a bath and haven't had clothes changed for a week pretty cruddy," he wrote Sept. 2, 1942.
"Received mail from home," he wrote two days later. "Got word of Mom's death from cancer on July 12. Don't seem to care anymore. Hope and pray I can snap out of it soon."
Among later entries that month: "Some of us are cracking up. General MacArthur better hurry and give us some relief. ... You just wait for the shells to come. ... Still raining. Our fox holes are full of water. ... No retreat for us — hell no. Everyone is resigned to the fate that seems to await us. God help us all."
While Roser was in the Pacific, Mary Jane Diamond was teaching school near Dayton, Ohio. In 1943, she decided to enlist in the WAVES. "I just got this bug to go into the service," she said. "My children wrote in their little school paper, 'The war will soon be over; Miss Diamond has joined the WAVES!"
After learning to march in basic training, she spent two years processing mail in San Francisco and New York City, where she once saw President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a parade. "It was an adventure," she said.
She worked mostly with Victory Mail. Families wrote letters to their servicemen on special forms that were microfilmed, then enlarged and reprinted once they reached their destination, eliminating shipping bulk and costs. "That was V-mail," she said. "Now we have email."
After a few more months of battle on other South Pacific islands, Roser returned home to find his pre-war girlfriend had married an Army officer. Roser and Diamond were fixed up by their aunts, who belonged to the same Scott County homemaker's club. The aunts arranged a dinner for them on New Year's Day 1946.
"That really took, right off," Roser said. The couple were married Oct. 12 that year.
He had a career farming and working in a hardware store and harness shops. She taught in public schools in Fayette County, mostly at Jessie Clark Middle. They raised four children and have been members of Hunter Presbyterian Church since the early 1950s.
The Rosers were never active in veterans' organizations. But around Memorial Day each year, he will read through his copy of The Old Breed, the First Marine Division's official history of World War II.
Showing me the book last week, Roser slowly turned the last 16 pages, labeled "In Memoriam". Each page had four columns of names. "We lost a lot of good men," he said softly.
"I think sometimes about what I've been through; well, I just never give up. I'm not that type of guy," he said. "But now it's getting that way — when you get to be 93 years old, you have to give up sometime."
"He's a tough ol' dude," Mary Jane Roser said. "But I took good care of him."
Her husband smiled. "Put a Marine and a Navy together," he said, "and you can't beat 'em."