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The following interview transcript is taken from our special Memorial Day edition of Morning Wire.
Andrew Biggio is a Marine veteran and author of "The Rifle."
He's spent years traveling the country collecting and sharing the stories of America's last living World War II veterans, many of whom - in their 90s or early 100s - had previously never spoken about their experiences.
Biggio recently sat down with Morning Wire's Georgia Howe to share what he has learned from the last few veterans from the Greatest Generation and how their stories helped him process his own experience as a Marine.
Georgia: Andrew, you took on an amazing project - you spent years traveling the country collecting the stories of World War II veterans. First off, tell us about the rifle you brought with you. How does that play into the story?
Andy: Sure. The rifle is an M-1 Garand from 1945. And it was the standard issue rifle of that time. Almost everybody had to fire it, whether in training or actual combat. So when I put the rifle into the arms of these men and women - 80 years later - it really acted as a microphone to bring back memories. Their memories flooded their brain again, and they were able to convey to me everything from training to combat, to returning home.
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Georgia: Now what stood out to you most during your meetings with these veterans?
Andy: I think what stood out most was a lot of them didn't try to play up to the reputation that they were the Greatest Generation. A lot of them taught me that war isn't just black and white, good versus evil, and that sometimes the Greatest Generation did some not so great things in order to win the war. And as a recent veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan it brought some normalcy to the situation that we found ourselves in as post-9/11 veterans.
Georgia: I think that would be important for a lot of service members to hear. Now, it's probably difficult to even pick one, but which was your most memorable meeting?
Andy: I think of all the meetings with the men who signed the rifle, I'd say the one that stands out to me right now is Ed Cottrell. Ed is 101 years old and was a P-47 fighter pilot. Ed flew 65 missions during the Battle of the Bulge and was almost shot down twice. He agreed to go back to Belgium with me and we had located his former landing strip along with two crash sites of his friends. We actually recovered pieces of his friend's planes, because the farmers who had been farming the area over the last 30 years were always digging up small little pieces. So we were able to give him a piece of the plane as a memento. And then, when we brought him to Margraten Cemetery in The Netherlands where he found the grave of his friend Ted Smith, he totally collapsed on his knees, crying, and started hugging the grave.
Georgia: Now I saw part of your interview with Sal Murano where he held the rifle for the first time in decades. Sal served in the 10th mountain division in Italy. Can you tell us a little bit about his story?
Andy: Yes. Sal just passed away at 102 years old. He served with the 10th mountain division in the Po Valley of Italy and was wounded in action then came home and worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 38 years. You know, he's someone who's never felt sorry for himself, stayed active in the Disabled American Veterans associations and welcomed me into his house at age 102 to talk about the Italian campaign during the Second World War.
Georgia: Well, your work is so important because we don't have many years left with these veterans, and there are so few left. But some have left really profound legacies. I'm thinking of your video of Tony Vaccaro - the war photographer - when he grabs a hold of the M1 rifle.
Georgia: Tell us about Tony.
Andy: We just lost Tony at age 102. Man, he was a pioneer. I mean, he took some of the most notable photos of the Second World War - you know, the ones you find on Google today that you never asked yourself, who took this photo? Or is this person still alive? He took some of the most iconic images of WWII, like German veterans crying once they found out their homes were destroyed after returning home from war. There's another one of a soldier on his knees and a little French girl is kissing his cheek. The photo is called "The Liberator"
and it's pretty well known if you're browsing WWII images. He went on to become a professional photographer after the war, but he experienced a lot of trauma serving with the 83rd infantry division. He earned a purple heart, was in the Battle of the Bulge, and was an actual infantryman. He just happened to have a high-quality camera on him, which a lot of young men at that time couldn't afford or didn't have. And because he was infantry and because he was on the front lines, he got to capture some of the best photos that even some official war press photographers couldn't.
Georgia: Do you know how many World War II veterans are still with us?
Andy: The VA released a statement maybe six months ago that they believe there are something like 180,000 World War II veterans still alive of the once 16 million. Those are the veterans who earned the World War II Victory medal.
Georgia: You recently brought a handful of these veterans with you back to Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about the trip?
Andy: Yes, we recently went to Belgium and Germany and we revisited the concentration camps with Jake Roser, Ed Cottrell, Jack Moran, and Bud Hideki. All four of those veterans had served in World War II. Some were in the Air Force, some were in the infantry, and one of them was a medic. We visited the Buchenwald Concentration camp and then also returned to the Ardennes where the Battle of the Bulge took place. It was just amazing. We were able to locate the vicinity of their foxholes, see some of the remaining foxholes of their buddies, and homes they took shelter in during the war. We even put up a small memorial plaque for the Fourth Infantry Division in the Hürtgen Forest. And to do all that with these men while they're 98 years old was just awesome. Having a beer with a man who's nearly 100, 79 years later, on the battlefield he served on that he never returned to because of the trauma and the chaos that took place was pretty special. And now finally, being retired and being in nursing homes, these guys got on a plane, got on a coach bus, and headed toward the battlefield with me and some other younger veterans.
Georgia: And I imagine some of them got pretty emotional while they were there.
Andy: Yes, especially when we visited the cemeteries. Some of them found guys from their exact regiments and units and got very emotional and had to sit down because of how powerful it was seeing some of these names written on a cross 79 years later. It really took them back.
Georgia: Now, traveling around the country to meet these men and then traveling around the world to go back to some of these battlegrounds, that's a massive undertaking. What made you want to take that on?
Andy: I think what happened was 75% of the 300 veterans I met had never returned to these places - places on the average American's bucket list: Paris, Rome, Amsterdam. The fact that they're retired now and sitting at home dwindling away in a recliner, many said, "You know what, now I think I would go back to Omaha Beach"
or "I would go back to Bastogne."
I thought it'd be so great to pair younger veterans with older veterans and let them bond together over there in France or Belgium. And who better to take care of an older veteran in a wheelchair than a younger veteran, knowing that he may be in that position one day. I think it was very therapeutic for all the younger veterans and first responders that I paired with World War II veterans - that these veterans had the courage to return at their age when their health is not so good, but they did it anyway. Especially in the eyes of the younger veterans. Overall, I did about 10 trips taking over 30 World War II veterans back to the battlefields they fought on.
Georgia: Were there any common sentiments they shared or common threads?
Andy: One common thread was they never talked about the war to their wives or their kids. Now, most of them outlived their spouse and I don't think they want to die with any secrets. They opened up to me as a younger veteran because I told them that before all the World War II veterans are gone you need to teach these young veterans who are coming home how to live a successful life after combat. And every one of them agreed to open up entirely about their war experiences. I think Americans need to realize we only have a good couple of years left with these men and women. Some of them are still driving, some of them are still in nursing homes, and some of them can still be found in restaurants - just to make sure you take the time and say, thank you.
Georgia: Right. There's not a ton of time left to do that. But it sounds like some of the men that you were speaking to still are pretty active, even in their late 90s and early 100s. What do you think accounts for that longevity?
Andy: I think a lot of the veterans who are still living and are still healthy, have kept active. They not only took one job and then retired, they took a second job and retired from that job too. They always stayed busy and active with their Veterans Associations and Veterans Clubs, always kept their mind so busy. They don't dwell on the past or think about the past and a lot of them definitely do not drink alcohol like they used to, or smoke like they used to. So I think all of those became factors.
Georgia: Now, you are a Marine veteran. What was your military experience like?
Andy: I was an infantryman and I served in Iraq and Afghanistan and had decent deployments. No heavy combat, but I did see some death and destruction. I think that's why I found it important to be able to spread the message to these other veterans who may have had more tragic experiences, and then find these World War II veterans who had just as bad experiences, and say, "Hey, if these guys could do it, so can you."
Georgia: You've touched on this a little bit, but how did meeting these veterans and hearing their stories help you process your own experience?
Andy: Meeting these veterans not only helped me learn how to become a good veteran, but a good father, a good leader, a good listener and a good family, man. I could take a lot away from a World War II veteran who lived until 98 years old and try to apply it to my everyday life. Not just what they did in combat. but what they did afterwards.
Georgia: Now your first book "The Rifle"
documents a lot of these stories, and you have a sequel coming out in September. How is it different from the part one?
Andy: Part two, "The Rifle Two"
is a little bit more controversial for sure. For the first book, I interviewed a lot of veterans who came home, had their head on their shoulders, and lived good lives. But this time, I cover many veterans who came home as alcoholics, criminals, liars, and one even became a murderer. I am trying to show the other side of things, the guys who didn't come home and live up to that Greatest Generation title. It took a while, but eventually they did square their lives away and make it to their late 90s.
Georgia: All right. Well, Andy, thank you so much for bringing these stories to our audience today.
Andy: Thank you.
Georgia: That was Andy Biggio, author of "The Rifle."
You can learn more and view dozens of veteran interviews at The WWII Rifle.