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World War II veterans speak to the ages

Recording World War II veterans for posterity
Recording World War II veterans for posterity 07:28

In 1943 Vincent Speranza, the son of Italian immigrants, enlisted when he turned 18. "I decided to be a paratrooper when I found out that that would probably be the fastest way to get into the battle," he said. "We were innocent kids who weren't ready for what was coming, let me tell ya'."

He fought in the Battle of the Bulge – Hitler's last-gasp attempt to stave off defeat in the final months of the war in Europe.

"Twelve-thousand Americans in that town held off 56,000 German troops," Speranza said.

Speranza died last year at the age of 98. But visitors to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans can still "talk" to him, thanks to voice recognition software and artificial intelligence. By posing questions, answers from interviews conducted with Speranza and other veterans can be played, preserving not just the stories of World War II, but also the people who lived them.

Q: "Did you have any close calls?"
Speranza: "I was trying to take a drink from my canteen ...  and it slipped out of my hands, and when I bent over to pick up the canteen, a bullet went right through my helmet.  Had I been standing, it would have went right through the middle of my chest."

CBS News' David Martin "interviews" World War II veteran Vincent Speranza, who died last year, but whose recollections of the Battle of the Bulge are preserved at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.  CBS News

"Unfortunately we're coming to a time where there are fewer and fewer World War II veterans to be able to actually talk to," said museum vice president Peter Crean.

Eighteen veterans of the war effort each sat for two days of interviews in a specially-configured Hollywood studio. "We've asked them roughly a thousand questions," said Crean.

Bomber pilot John Luckadoo was one participant. He said the interview recording was "an intriguing concept, extremely so – the thought that my great-great-great-grandchildren could speak to me and ask me anything that came to their minds, and that it would automatically scroll to my answer."

And not just Luckadoo's great-great-great-grandchildren – everybody's great-great-great-grandchildren will be able to.

Luckadoo was 20 years old when he flew bombing missions over Germany. "They were about as dangerous as you can imagine, because we were going up against a very formidable German Air Force that had been fighting for four years," he said.

Luckadoo said that if you survived 25 missions, you were eligible to be returned to the United States. The odds of surviving 25 missions were less than one in four.

Now 102 years old, Luckadoo got his first look at how he'll be remembered. He asked his avatar, "What was your worst mission?"

The recorded Luckadoo answered: "As we turned on the bomb run, we had an 18-ship formation. We lost 12 out of the 18 ships, instantly."

CBS News' David Martin for World War II bomber pilot John Luckadoo, with Luckadoo's recorded self.  CBS News

"Kind of eerie to speak to yourself!" he said of addressing his recording.  

"So, that's the self that generations are going to know," said Martin. "You good with that?"

"Well, it will be interesting to see how the generations react to it," Luckadoo replied. "It's not very important as to how I react to it."

React not just to his war stories but to what happened when he came home. Luckadoo recorded his experience: "They rationed us to a fifth of whiskey a day. I soon realized that that wasn't enough. I was rapidly becoming an alcoholic."

Martin said, "Young generations are going to find out that, too, about you."

"Well, I did want to convey the fact that this is the kind of state that you could be left in if you experienced what we experienced in those days – that war does that, can do that, to you," Luckadoo replied.

Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams recorded his account of the Battle of Iwo Jima.  StoryFile

"Fear in war is something that's always there."

Anyone will be able ask Woody Williams about seeing the American flag raised on Iwo Jima on Mount Suribachi. Until his passing in 2022, Williams was the war's last living recipient of the Medal of Honor. "I received the Medal of Honor for eliminating the enemy within seven pill boxes on Iwo Jima," he said in his interview.

The war wasn't won just on the battlefield. Grace Brown was a "Rosie the Riveter" who made parts for bombers. "I was a good machinist, I think, because I loved math," she said in her remembrance.  

Crean said, "The war was fought and won by the average guy who was down the street or the woman who was a nurse or working in the factory."

Corbett Summers, whose father served in World War II, was one of the first members of the public to see the new exhibit. He called it overwhelming. "Everyone should have that opportunity to see that generation," he said. "I could stand there all day and talk to each and every one of them and listen to their stories and what they went through."

You can read all the great histories of the war and never find a better answer to what combat is really like than from the late Vincent Speranza: "In your mind swirling around, the most important thought you had was, 'Am I going to be able to stand up and my friends afterwards say to me, yes, you're a combat soldier'?"

More than 600,000 visitors a year can hear firsthand from veterans like Tuskegee Airman George Hardy about a time when it was all on the line. "I was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, part of the 333rd Second Fighter Group in Italy," Hardy said.

Tuskegee Airman George Hardy recorded an interview about his experiences during World War II for the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.  CBS News

Luckadoo spoke to the importance of preserving the veterans' eyewitness accounts: "Lives had been expended to protect our freedom and our values and what we considered our ideals and democracy."

Martin asked, "Do you think people today have a good understanding of World War II?"

"Certainly not," replied Luckadoo. "The biggest thing they don't understand is how the civilian population – those who were not in uniform, and particularly women – rallied behind the war effort. We were unified like we have never been before, and sadly probably never will again."

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Story produced by Mary Walsh and Eleanor Watson. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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