NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – The number of World War II veterans is dwindling, as most of them are now in their 80s and 90s.
Known as the Greatest Generation, a group of them is setting out on a transatlantic journey to share their stories.
On Friday, they boarded Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 at Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook. The seven-day cruise from Brooklyn to London is free for the vets – a way to pay tribute to the aging heroes.
Stuart Hedley is 97 years old and served in the Navy for 20 years. He was on board the U.S.S. West Virginia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“Planes were diving from everywhere,” he told CBS2’s Cindy Hsu. “And those 50-caliber machine guns, wing guns, were spitting bullets all over the place.”
He and his fellow veterans will share their stories on board the ship in a partnership between Cunard and the Greatest Generations Foundation. They’ll discuss their experiences and take part in Q&A sessions with other passengers, most of whom are not veterans.
Hedley said the trip means the world to him.
“It’s a blessing beyond measure, something I never dreamed of in my greatest dreams,” he said.
Steven Melnikoff is 98 years old and was drafted into the Army. He hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and wants future generations to remember all those who died.
“Those people are in the cemeteries buried all over the world, in the oceans all over the world, that they gave their lives for something that was great,” he said. “We have to tell our story. We are the last of the WWII veterans that fought.”
Sixteen million Americans served in WWII. Right now, there are only about 300,000 left, with an estimated 350 dying every day, Hsu reported.
Lester Bornstein, 93, is from West Orange, New Jersey. He was drafted into the Army at 18 years old and served 22 years. His family said he’s been very sick, practically on his death bed. But when he heard about the trip, it gave him the will to live.
“I just got out of the hospital. I thought I was going to die. When I told my wife that I wanted to go on this trip, she couldn’t believe it that I would make it,” he said. “So I’m just thrilled to be here.”