On a recent not-quite-warm and windy day, Roy Earle and Fred Jeffery stood side-by-side at the Major Charles J. Loring Memorial Park at Portland’s Eastern Promenade, reflecting on their time in World War II.

The two men are among the last veterans of the war. They both served in the Marines and performed nearly the same job, running telephone wires for the infantry in the Pacific Theater. Earle, of Norway, served on Iwo Jima, while Jeffery, of Portland, was at Okinawa.

Both survived several close calls, and could have died as easily as many of their fellow service members. Instead, they went on to live long lives.

“I should have been killed so many times, but others were killed,” Jeffery said quietly. “I was just trying to survive.”

For World War II veterans like Earle, 91, and Jeffery, 97, Memorial Day, a national holiday set aside to remember those who died in service to their country, is also a stark reminder that fewer of them are left every year who can tell the stories of their comrades who weren’t so lucky.

This year, any 18-year-old who enlisted in the service in 1942 – the year after the United States entered the war in December 1941 – will turn 91. Over the next few years, it will become increasingly difficult to find any living World War II veterans. The number of living World War II vets plummeted nationally from 4 million in 2004 to 1 million in 2014, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In Maine, there were fewer than 6,500 World War II vets still living in 2014, according to the VA.

That number continues to dwindle. In March, the Portland Press Herald published a story about Bill Gardner, a veteran who served on Iwo Jima. After the article ran, he was invited to be the grand marshal in Portland’s Memorial Day parade.

But Gardner died suddenly a few weeks after the story ran, on April 22, at age 90. His family said Gardner will still be the parade’s grand marshal – in memoriam.

That means men like Earle, Jeffery and V.W. “Cappy” Dyer of Yarmouth, who served stateside during the war and later helped rebuild Japan after the war’s end in 1945, are among the few who can still tell their war stories, as well as those of the men who never made it home.

‘YOU JUST HOPED IT WASN’T YOUR TURN’

Both Earle and Jeffery recalled being near death numerous times.

On Okinawa – an island that Jeffery said “reminded me of Maine” because of its pine trees – he recalled his lunch being shot as he was holding it. He said a burning Japanese airplane buzzed him, nearly hitting him, before crashing into the ocean. The plane was only slightly higher than the top of a two-story house when it flew over him.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to hit me,'” said Jeffery, a Portland native and lifelong Mainer who enlisted in December 1942. “I was really lucky.”

That wasn’t the first time Jeffery had dodged bullets, though. When he left for the Pacific several months after enlisting, he was sent first to Guam and Bougainville in New Guinea. In Guam, he suddenly collapsed and fell ill from “dengue fever,” a potentially life-threatening tropical disease that laid him up for a week.

While in Guam, he recalled an incident in which his landing vehicle got stuck in water as “bullets were hitting all around us and in the water” as the men waded to shore.

After reaching the beach, he hid overnight in a “shell hole,” a crater in the ground created by the aftereffects of a bomb, alongside the body of a dead U.S. soldier, waiting for a safe time to move out.

Earle, too, recalled several near-misses. He enlisted in November 1942, and by the summer of 1943 was fighting the Japanese in the Marshall Islands, then on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima.

“One time on Tinian, a shell landed right next to me, but it didn’t hit me. The force of the explosion knocked me out of my foxhole,” he said.

Part of his job was to fix telephone wires that had been snipped by the Japanese, run over by tanks or otherwise disabled.

“We had to do this in the pitch dark, crawling around and feeling for the wires,” Earle said. “You hoped you were going in the right direction.”

On Iwo Jima, so many Marines landed on the beach at once that they couldn’t easily move, and came under heavy fire.

“They’d start firing at you, and there was nowhere you could go, no place you could turn,” Earle said. “You just hoped it wasn’t your turn to get hit.”

The volcanic ash on Iwo Jima made digging nearly impossible and moving slow. The Japanese hid in a network of caves, and it took more than a month before the U.S. military secured the island in March 1945.

“Boy, they were ready for us. Iwo was a toughie,” said Earle, who remembers seeing a group of dead soldiers killed in a surprise attack. “They were lying all over the place.”

After Iwo Jima, Earle returned to Maui in Hawaii to train for the invasion of mainland Japan, which never happened because the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered.

Jeffery ended his service in northern China, witnessing the Japanese surrender there. After returning to the United States, he came back to Maine and became a teacher, then a school principal. He married his wife, Barbara, and they had eight children before she died three years ago.

Earle also married after the war and had three children, working in the public relations and communications field and moving in the 1960s to Maine, where he lived in Houlton and Yarmouth, among other places.

‘BRINGING JUSTICE’

V.W. “Cappy” Dyer didn’t see combat in World War II. His role was to bring justice for the prisoners of war killed by their Japanese captors.

Dyer – a Colby College graduate who is now 95 and lives in Bay Square in Yarmouth – said his memories of that time have faded with the years. He grew up in Burma, learning Burmese and Hindustani, so the Army intelligence service sent him to its Japanese language school in Michigan. His first assignment in Japan, which began shortly after the war ended, was censoring mail and newspapers.

Dyer then joined the Army’s War Crimes Investigations Division. He was first assigned to investigate a massacre at the Puerto Princessa prisoner camp on Palawan Island in the Philippines. The camp’s 150 prisoners had previously defended Bataan and Corregidor. With the U.S. forces advancing toward Tokyo near the end of the war, almost all of Palawan Island’s POWs were killed except for a handful who escaped.

After the Japanese surrender, Dyer and his interpreter, a Japanese-American man named Masahida Yamada, were sent to the island on the west side of the Philippines to interview witnesses.

“I was really quite shocked nothing had come out on it before, until my interpreter and I busted it open,” Dyer said.

Based on interviews with witnesses and survivors, Dyer pieced together an account of what happened:

With American forces approaching, Japanese commanders had been told to execute their prisoners, he said. They sounded an air raid, which sent the prisoners into shelters.

When the prisoners left the shelters, they were killed with guns, swords and flamethrowers, he said.

A few managed to topple down a 15-foot cliff to the shore, and then swim 5 miles in shark-infested waters to where they were reunited with American forces.

Three of the survivors testified against their former captors at the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo, he said. Dyer said five of the prison camp guards were captured. He was told many others escaped to Indonesia.

A separate atrocity, on Ishigaki Jima, east of Okinawa, came to the attention of the Army only because an anonymous postcard was sent to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, saying that two Americans were killed on the island, Dyer said.

Using records from the Japanese War Ministry, Dyer identified the Japanese naval unit stationed there and its commanding officer.

The island’s defenders shot down two U.S. servicemen. They were beaten and bayoneted by some 20 Japanese soldiers before being beheaded with a samurai sword, Dyer said.

Dyer took the stand at the war crimes tribunal for two days, he said, recounting the evidence he’d compiled.

The Japanese commander and 42 naval personnel were sentenced to death by hanging, he said.

The experiences of prisoners held by the Japanese gained renewed interest with the release in recent years of the best-selling book and movie “Unbroken,” based on the story of a man who survived in a raft after his bomber was downed, then was sent to several prisoner of war camps.

Dyer never saw combat, but the terrible deaths he was charged with investigating haunted him.

“The fact that I had solved and brought to justice the perpetrators of two unbelievably heinous and savage crimes in the Pacific involving U.S. Army soldiers and airmen gave me a feeling of having served my country well,” he said, “in spite of never having heard the sound of the enemy’s live bullet on the battlefield.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: Mainehenchman