It’s a bright Sunday afternoon in August 2014. At home in Long Island, Dominic Ercolano, age eighty-nine, sits in a plush beige rocking recliner.
Over wispy gray hair he wears a blue ballcap with the words “U.S. Army Air Corps WWII Flyboy” stitched in yellow across the front. With his hat and cane, it’s hard to imagine him in the cockpit of a fighter plane, dodging enemy bullets — and, in fact, he never was. The cane doesn’t assist him in nursing an old war wound, it’s a typical sign of old age. He has spinal stenosis, a pacemaker in his chest and periodic difficulty breathing due to problems with his lungs. Dominic Ercolano never saw combat.
“We got on a plane to go to Honolulu. We had engine trouble and turned back,” says Ercolano, who spent six months in the mainland United States preparing to be deployed to Japan. “While we were waiting for the plane to be fixed, the war ended.”
Ercolano is one of four surviving World War II veterans at his local VFW post in St. James, a hamlet in Long Island’s Suffolk County. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, for every sixteen Americans who served in the war, only one is still alive; 2015 is projected to be the first year that the population of World War II veterans drops below one million. By 2025, that number will be under 100,000. By 2036, they’ll be gone completely.