Nightmares kept Joe Ojeda Sr. up in the darkest hours of the night for almost 60 years. He wandered his Roseville house, peering out at the empty street, temporarily lost in the past. In his mind, he was pinned down with his fellow Marines on the black beaches of Iwo Jima, waiting to die.
He told no one; not his wife, Erna, whom he married in 1949; not their five children.
His memories of some of the most vicious battles in World War II were the burden he carried for serving his country, the stories that he spared his family, until the day in the late 1990s that a Veterans Affairs counselor in Auburn asked him where he had served.
"Joe broke down and was crying, and he started talking," said Erna Ojeda, 83.
And in talking – in finally sharing what he had seen as a 17-year-old kid so eager to be part of the war that he had his mother sign a waiver for him to join early – Ojeda, now 85, discovered that his family is immensely proud of him.
On the crystal clear morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched a shocked nation into World War II. Seventy years later, many aging and long silent veterans of that war feel an increased urgency to tell their families how they went to war and how they survived to come home and carry on with the business of living.
Despite a generational reluctance to seem less than humble, each is a living witness to a piece of history that changed the nation and the world.
Left untold, their stories die with them.
They're vanishing from our midst, dying off at a rate of more than 800 veterans a day across the country – six a day in the Sacramento region alone during the past decade, according to U.S. census figures.
Of the 16 million men and women who served in World War II, fewer than 1.6 million are alive today.
"These veterans are remarkable in the way they conducted their lives and viewed their service," said Bob Patrick, director of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, which in the past 11 years has amassed the oral histories of almost 50,000 World War II veterans.
"The one thing you hear from them again and again is 'I didn't do anything special.' For some, what they saw was too hard to talk about it. And some don't want to sound like they're bragging."
And some simply came home and built lives for their wives and children, too busy to dwell on what they saw when they were young and the world was at war.
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