75 years after World War II, their voices recall the struggle

Some were heroes. Some were victims. Others fought for the fascists who sought to dominate the planet. Today their stories are as poignant as ever.

Seventy-five years ago, the most far-flung, destructive, and lethal war in history approached its end. World War II lived up to its name: It was a true global conflict that pitted the Allied powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China, and their smaller allies—against Germany, Japan, Italy, and a few other Axis nations. Some 70 million men and women served in the armed forces, taking part in the greatest military mobilization in history. Civilians, however, did most of the suffering and dying. Of the estimated 66 million people who perished, nearly 70 percent—some 46 million—were civilians, including six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Tens of millions more were uprooted from their homes and countries, many of them living in displaced persons camps for years to come.

The war’s aftereffects were as staggering as its scale. It laid the groundwork for the world we’ve known for more than seven decades, from the dawn of the nuclear age to the creation of Israel to the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as the world’s dueling superpowers. It also sparked the formation of international alliances such as the United Nations and NATO, all designed to prevent such a cataclysm from happening again.

Yet, with the passage of time, public awareness of the war and its almost unfathomable consequences has faded, becoming as dim as the sepia tones of an old photograph. At the same time, firsthand witnesses are dwindling in number. According to U.S. government statistics, fewer than 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war—2.5 percent—were still alive in 2019.

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