WWII Vets: Endangered Species

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With each day, a lifeline to our history is slipping away.

CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone has the story of American war veterans in danger of becoming forgotten heroes.
In the hillside cemetery at the California Veterans Home, it was time to say goodbye to Sgt. Fred Bancalari.

"Between Fred and John Wayne, World War II was well in hand," recalled Chaplain Tom Sarciapone at the grave site.

He was a recipient of the Silver Star.

"For gallantry in action on 22 November, 1944 in France," another service attendee added.

And Bancalari always had a tale to tell.

"He was always full of humorous stories," another at the service reminded.

Just a few weeks ago, for Memorial Day, Fred Bancalari had shared some of his stories with CBS News: his firsthand accounts of battles in North Africa, Italy and France.

"We were getting our brains blowed to pieces; we...suffered casualties, terrific casualties not just for a week or a month but almost two years," Bancalari recalled.

Like the others who had been there, he knew the details that aren't in the history books: the humor and the pain, what it's like to lose your buddy sitting right next to you.

"A sniper with a scope takes a bead on a - some poor sucker who at this particular case was Bauttista; one round snuffed him out just like that," Bancalari had remembered.

But now so many of those who fought and survived are reaching the end. The veterans of World War II are dying.

"It's over a thousand a day," says Roger Rapp of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The deaths are coming at such a quick and accelerating pace, new national cemeteries have become a federal priority. There is such demand for buglers to play taps, there frequently aren't enough to go around.

Even for battle-hardened veterans, the death rate now is staggering: 1,000 fallen comrades a day.

"And the sad part of it is that little by little we're losing our World War II generation," says one observer.

And what's being lost is a living connection to a defining event in world history.

"A lot of the stories I'd heard a zillion times but then I really started listening," says Barbara Bancalari Williams. Fred Bancalari's daughter had been just 3 months old when he headed off to war. She admits the stories didn't mean much until recently.

"When he started to talk about people he fought with and how many died and the sacrifices that they made and you start to think, 'Why were they doing this?' And it was for us," Bancalari Williams says.

With each day and 1,000 more burials, we get closer to the time when these witnesses to war will have slipped away.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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