World War II veterans: Measuring the loss of a generation

The lives of some of the 650 World War II veterans who die each day

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 26 2013 10:35 p.m. MDT

Bernard Adamski

Associated Press

The solemn ritual plays out dozens of times every day with a neatly folded flag, a crisp salute and one more goodbye to a fast-fading generation of soldiers, sailors and Marines.

These were the men who made history in places such as Normandy and Anzio, Iwo Jima and Peleliu, vets who came home and helped build highways and houses, toiled in factories and offices, even launched their own companies. They were the ones lucky enough to see their hair turn silver, to dance at their children's weddings, to cuddle their grandchildren.

But the ranks of World War II vets are shrinking. The youngest are now in their mid-80s. About 650 die each day, thousands are laid to rest every week. Beyond these numbers, there are individual stories of ordinary lives shaped by an extraordinary chapter.

The first seven days in May offer a small glimpse. Among the many who died in that one week were five veterans who took vastly different journeys in life. They were men who had business savvy, artistic gifts and heroic careers — and in some cases, men who finally came to terms with the world they left behind long ago.

Here are their stories:

Morton Tuller devoted his life to celebrating others, creating trophies and awards honoring a job well done at school, at work or on the athletic field.

His own accomplishments as a young soldier in the Army Signal Corps were medal-worthy, but Tuller kept his success secret much of his life. As a cryptologist, he had a high-security-clearance job deciphering American codes sent ship-to-ship in the European and Pacific theaters. For decades, he told no one, not even his wife, about his work on Navy ships that landed in Sicily, southern France, north Africa, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

Tuller kept his wartime vow of silence for more than half a century. Then a public TV show featured a machine he'd used for message encryption. He figured it was OK to discuss the past — and time to collect medals he'd never received. A local Arizona congressman helped him cut red tape. And at age 79, Tuller was, for once, a recipient of honors himself.

In all, he received six medals, one ribbon and 10 battle stars.

Despite his record, Tuller was remarkably modest. When he spoke of the war, "he talked about it matter-of-factly," says his son, Howard. "He'd say, 'This is what was asked of us. This is what we did.' He wasn't more or less a hero than anyone else."

But he made it clear he'd endured a terrifying ordeal. Howard recalls his father would say, "'You can't possibly imagine what it was like. Every gun on the ship would be going off. There's nowhere to hide. People are trying to kill you. Kamikaze pilots are flying low. Ships are shooting at one another. It was just madness.'"

Tuller's years in uniform were just part of his eclectic life. A born storyteller, Tuller always had a joke or magic trick, loved marching in parades (he played bass drum in a bagpipe band) and carried a pocketful of silver dollars he'd hand out to anyone and everyone. At family gatherings, he was everyone's favorite Uncle Morty.

Tuller's professional career started early, and improbably, for a shy son of struggling eastern European immigrants. At age 15, he reluctantly auditioned in Chicago for a role in a traveling stage production as one of the "Dead End Kids," a group of street-smart toughs in the 1930s.

"I'm sure he looked like a Dead End Kid," Howard says. "He had holes in his shoes." He was chosen to play Dippy, received a Screen Actors Guild card and earned $40 a week, "more than anyone in his family had ever made."

In his nine-month tour, Tuller and the other "kids" had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt and as part of publicity events, were fingerprinted by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and walked across the Golden Gate bridge on its opening day. He never returned to acting, but "being on the stage really changed his life," his son says. "When the spotlight was on, he was at his best."

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