Torpy at Large: 75 years after D-Day, finding WWII vets is the battle

Hilbert Margol and his Howitzer (105 mm) crew during World War II. He said they had just cleaned the gun and he was leaning over, checking the weapon’s mechanism. Photo from Hilbert Margol

Hilbert Margol and his Howitzer (105 mm) crew during World War II. He said they had just cleaned the gun and he was leaning over, checking the weapon’s mechanism. Photo from Hilbert Margol

Hilbert Margol, 95, recently fielded a call from the Dunwoody Nature Center. A rep from the center said the facility was going to retire an old flag next month on Flag Day.

“He said he wanted a dozen World War II vets for the ceremony,” Margol said with a grin. “I said, ‘I’m in. But good luck with finding 11 more.’”

Good luck is right. Finding World War II vets is increasingly an exercise in scarcity. I came across Margol the other day because it turns out most of the WWII vets in my phone file — men I have spoken with for stories since 2011 — are either dead or missing.

Being a history buff, I planned to call some World War II veterans and write a column commemorating Memorial Day or the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. (June 6, 1944, for the historically challenged.)

I paged through my contact numbers.

Bob Kerr and Bob Schmutzler were there at Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941). I spoke with them in 2011, and before calling them this year, I Googled their names. I found their obituaries.

In 2014, I wrote about a true cosmic coincidence: In the same retirement community in Stone Mountain were two historic "navigators" of the war's end. Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk was the navigator of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that on Aug. 6, 1945, dropped the atomic bomb "Little Boy" over Hiroshima. And Jim Starnes was the navigator of the USS Missouri, the battleship on which Japanese officials signed the country's surrender a month later.

I knew that Van Kirk had died, but I'd spoken with Starnes seemingly not that long ago. But another Google search, another obit.

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OK, I figured, I'll try Bob "Punchy" Powell, a D-Day pilot, and Bill Owens, who was in the Navy and helped run the Atlanta World War II Roundtable club. I found Punchy's obit. Owens' number is disconnected and he is not to be found.

In 2015, I attended the funeral for a D-Day paratrooper and met George Wilkerson, then 91, who had been a sergeant for an Army artillery company that pounded its way into Germany. Wilkerson was driving a massive SUV because he enjoyed pulling an equally large camper on trips across the U.S.

George Wilkerson, World War II artillery man, in 2015 at the Floral Hills cemetery after attending the funeral of fellow veteran Carl Beck. Photo by BILL TORPY

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Wilkerson’s number is now disconnected.

I called the number listed for the Atlanta World War II Roundtable and soon was talking with another old artillery man — the aforementioned Hilbert Margol, who in recent years made the rounds with his identical twin, Howard, telling their story about how two Jewish brothers were among the first Americans to come across the Dachau concentration camp.

There were boxcars packed with bodies, he recalled. “But we didn’t know what we were seeing. We went to the main gate. There were over 30,000 prisoners still there. But it was very quiet.”

But Margol must recount his story alone these days. Howard died two years ago.

Hilbert Margol (center) on transport ship after the war. Photo from Hilbert Margol.

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I asked about Wilkerson, the vet with the large SUV. Margol said Wilkerson drove him down to an event in Peachtree City last year.

Is he still driving?

“No, I think he had a stroke,” Margol said. “George is now in assisted living.”

Margol is a slight, spry fellow who is retired from the furniture sales business and lives in a brightly colored home in Dunwoody. He just celebrated his wife’s 90th birthday with a ton of family.

World War II veteran Hilbert Margol in his Dunwoody home. Photo by Bill Torpy

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Margol took over as the communications contact for the Word War II Roundtable after health issues caused the previous publicity chair to step down. Membership in the group is dropping, especially its WWII vets, there being just a handful of regulars.

“We’re losing like 400 a day (nationwide),” he said.

This all got me thinking about the 1990s and early 2000s, when my dad, a WWII vet, would point out the Chicago Tribune obituary section where many obits had little flags next to them.

"Look at these, they're all my generation dying off," he would say. And then one day, he was a flag on that page.

The only World War II veteran I was able to contact from my phone file was Harold Vrono, who is 95.

From his fifth-floor perch in a retirement home in Sandy Springs, Vrono is able to survey the parking lot and woods. Sometimes he even uses binoculars just like he did when he was working as a forward spotter for a cannon company in 1944 under the command of Gen. George Patton. In December of that year, an enemy shell exploded over him, tearing open his right shoulder and ending his days in combat.

“We were over the Siegfried line (in Germany) and they were waiting for us,” he said.

Harold Vrono in the Army during World War II. Photo courtesy of Vrono.

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After the war, the Atlanta native went into the restaurant supply business, raised three kids, and became a widower two years ago. He credits his longevity to family and staying busy, including building a barn up in North Georgia in retirement and riding horses.

Asked if he keeps in touch with his comrades from the war, he said, “Ain’t many of us left. As you get older, you get scarcer.”

It’s simple actuarial math. If you were 18 at the end of WWII — pretty much the youngest of those in the war — you’re 92 or 93 now.

Harold Vrono, 95, in his apartment in Sandy Springs. Behind him is a rifle similar to the one he carried in Europe in World War II. On another wall is his Purple Heart. Photo by Bill Torpy.

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When I chatted with Pearl Harbor survivors in 2011, a tenth of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII were still with us.

In 2015, when I met Wilkerson, about 800,000 were alive.

Now, there are perhaps 400,000. That’s 2.5% of those who served.

According to an article in Forbes, the Department of Veterans Affairs projects that a handful of WWII vets may make it into the 2040s. The last surviving American soldier from World War I, Frank Buckles, died in 2011, 93 years after that war's end. He was 110.

The poignant conclusion to Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War" has grainy newsreel footage of stooped, ancient vets, both the Blue and the Gray, gathering at Gettysburg to commemorate the 75th anniversary.

We are pretty much at that point now with the World War II generation.

Margol was invited to go to Germany next year for the 75th anniversary of the war’s end.

“If my health is good, I’ll do it,” he said. “I got lucky. I have most of my mother’s genes. She lived to 102.”

Not long ago, he got his driver’s license renewed. “He renewed my license until 2026,” Margol said. “I hope he knows something.”