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Great but fading wisps of war As WWII generation vanishes, fewer tell its heroic tales

Meyer "Mike" Garson, William C. Dolce and Louis R. Palma are part of a disappearing breed of Americans.

The three are among the 2.9 million surviving veterans of World War II.

While that might seem like a lot, consider that 16.1 million Americans served in World War II. And more than 1,500 of these men and women die every day.

As they pass away, so do their memories.

That is why Garson, 90, of Amherst; Dolce, 88, of the Town of Tonawanda; and Palma, 79, of Derby, are willing to share their World War II experiences with anyone who wants to hear them, especially on Veterans Day.

"There aren't many of us around anymore to tell the story," Garson said.

Palma, Erie County's director of veterans services, attends many events sponsored by veterans organizations. While no official figure is available, he estimates that 8,000 World War II veterans live in Erie County and a few thousand more elsewhere in Western New York.

"Every event you go to, you see less and less of the guys from World War II," he said. "On Veterans Day, I tend to think of the ones who have passed on. I lost a lot of friends in the war."

While Palma, Garson and Dolce are extremely proud of their military service, they all worry about America's current military efforts. All three said they believe that the Iraq War is a mistake.

"This war has already lasted longer than World War II," Garson said. "It breaks my heart to see kids getting killed over there."

"I think the president rushed in there. He was too anxious," Dolce said. "He should have waited for more accurate information about weapons of mass destruction."

While he, too, thinks the war was a mistake, Palma was quick to add that he knows many World War II veterans who do agree with the actions that President Bush took against Iraq.

"About half the [World War II veterans] I've talked to are against the war, and about half are for it," Palma said.

Whenever possible, war should be avoided, said the three men, who spoke from experience in a series of recent interviews.

>A high military honor

Dolce received an honor in August that means the world to him.

The government of France gave the Army veteran a high military honor -- naming him a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. He was one of a group of American soldiers who received the award for liberating southern France in 1944.

"I was flabbergasted that the French had gone back and researched something that I did more than 60 years ago," Dolce said. "We chased the Nazis out of France, and I'm proud that I was involved."

A former combat engineer, Dolce remembers his scariest wartime experience "like it was yesterday," even though it happened Aug. 15, 1944.

On that day, he was part of the American force that stormed the beach at Cavalaire-sur-Mer, France. American troops were arriving on boats that normally would have landed right up on the beach.

"But the tide was too high for a beach landing that day," Dolce recalled. "They anchored the boats in the water about 75 yards offshore, and you had to jump off and hold onto a rope while they pulled you ashore."

The time he spent waiting to leave the boat was horrifying for Dolce. From a nearby mountain, Germans were blasting cannon fire at the American troops.

"The boat next to ours was hit, and bodies were flying up into the air," Dolce said. "On top of that, I was a nonswimmer. I've always been afraid of the water.

"I was a frightened individual; I'll admit that. All I could do was think about my family and pray. I asked God to please get me through that day. He did."

Dolce served almost three years overseas during the war, in France, Germany, Algeria and Italy, including Sicily. He stayed in the military until 1978, later working for the state Labor Department.

He remains very active with the Military Officers Association of Western New York, often attending funerals and helping the widows of war veterans with burial paperwork.

"Almost all my friends from the war are gone," Dolce said. "I still visit veterans in hospitals and nursing homes. It's important."

Dolce is proud of something else. He and his wife, Angela Monte Dolce, have been married for 65 years.

>From medic to major

At age 90, Garson still works about 30 hours a week, making jewelry in his home. Often, while he works, he thinks back to some of the scenes he witnessed during World War II.

"I was 21 when they drafted me on March 17, 1941," Garson said. "I had no idea what I was getting into. But once I got in, I put everything I had into it."

Initially trained as a medic, he decided to apply for Officer Candidate School. He got in, eventually rising to the rank of major in the Army Signal Corps.

"We built phone lines, set up communications systems and delivered every kind of supply that the soldiers needed," Garson said. "It wasn't combat, but the combat soldiers needed us."

Garson witnessed the bombing of London and the invasion at Normandy. He said the D-Day landing was as bloody as it was depicted in the film "Saving Private Ryan."

"Once I made it onto the beach, I found a lieutenant colonel's helmet," he said. "I picked it up. There was a bullet hole, right where his forehead would be. I'll never forget that as long as I live."

>Recalling a brother

Palma, who lied about his age when he joined the Army at 15, is a military rarity. He served in three wars: World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He is amazed at the different reactions he got from people after each of his war experiences.

"When you came home after World War II, everybody loved you," he said. "After Korea, people were asking, 'Where were you for the past year?'

"After Vietnam, there were no parades. You didn't even tell people where you had been."

Palma was in the Navy Air Corps, serving as a tail gunner on Navy dive bombers in the Pacific. He often thinks of the many friends who died during World War II.

And he thinks of his brother, Henry Jr., an Air Force pilot who died in Germany during the Korean War. Henry was on a practice mission when his engine seized up over a German city, Palma said.

"He could have bailed out, but he stayed in the jet until he got over an unpopulated area," Palma said. "He didn't want the plane to crash into the city.

"Henry never got out. He was 25 years old."


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