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World War II took their youth

ST. PETERSBURG — Sixty-seven years ago, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the four old vets were not unlike the young faces sitting before them Wednesday.

They were teenagers, in high school and college. They were studying for promising careers in physics and engineering. Going out on dates. Making out with girls.

And then, they were soldiers in World War II, fighting for their country, fighting for their lives.

On Wednesday, the Greatest Generation met Generation Y and a few baby boomers inside Gary Mormino's history class at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Such an opportunity dwindles with each passing day, as an estimated 1,000 World War II veterans die daily.

John Clement, 85, took part in the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima, site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Pacific campaign.

"How did you feel about the enemy?" one student asked.

"I didn't give a lot of thought to it,'' said Clement, a former Marine. "Here was the war. It was our job.''

The packed classroom sat mostly silent while the four local veterans recounted their memories of the war.

Gus Stavros, 83, who was injured in the war, fought in three European campaigns with Gen. George Patton. He received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

He described the battlefield at Nennig, Germany, where the 36 men in his platoon were told to dig six foxholes in an exposed area that was later attacked by 400 Germans. His battalion triumphed.

Stavros was struck by shrapnel as he helped transport 200 Germans who had surrendered. He had volunteered for the duty because one of his comrades had not finished eating. Fifty years later, he got a letter from the man, thanking him.

"I think each generation can be the greatest generation,'' he said. "There's so much you can do. What you have before you is tremendous."

William Emerson, wearing a leather flight jacket, passed around pictures of the B-25s he flew and described the bombs he dropped from the sky.

"Unless you get to talk to guys who were in the war, it's not the same,'' said Dawn Fletcher, 45, a history senior. "I get goose bumps when I talk to these guys.''

"The most striking thing is how young they were when they went through this,'' said Andrew Wilson, 22, a political science senior.

Mormino told his students, "You won't remember a lot of lectures. You will remember hearing these men.''

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8813.

World War II took their youth 04/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2008 3:08pm]

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