BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — World War II came to an end 78 years ago and according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, less than 1% of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war are still alive today.

So, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, we invited a handful of these veterans to News 4:

  • Tech. Sgt. Casey Bukowski, U.S. Army Air Corps.
  • SSG John Long, DC, U.S. Army
  • PFC. Bill Gosch, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • SSgt. Natalie Yaskow, U.S. Marine Corps.

They shared their remarkable stories of survival and what they want the younger generations to know today. All four are between 96-100 years old. The eldest: Natalie Yaskow.

Yaskow followed her bother into the Marines.

“He was my buddy,” she said.

Her parents didn’t want her in harm’s way, so on her 21st birthday, when she no longer needed their permission, she enlisted.

“My parents read about it the next day in the paper, so I’m afraid they saw it at the breakfast table,” Yaskow said.

Yaskow finished boot camp and went to Paris Island in 1944 for an accounting job. The women then enlisted in order to take the desk job of a man, so those men could enter combat.

“The women actually went in with the motto ‘We’re replacing the man to fight,'” she said. “That had strictly been a man’s world down there. They were well trained, and the Marines who were there had been there for years. But (eventually) it changed. They got used to us and then they found out we were handy people to have around too. After I had been there a couple of months, it was pretty nice.”

Casey Bukowski tried to join the Marines.

“I wasn’t big enough to join the Marine Corps,” he laughed.

At 5-foot-5, Bukowski found his role in the Army Air Corps, fitting into small spaces on B-17 bombers. But one fateful day, the Germans hit his plane.

“He hit the oxygen tank,” Bukowski said. “We had a big oxygen tank inside our plane that blew up and caught fire, and blew out part of the plane.”

Out of a crew of 10, only three would survive.

“When I came to, I was on my back… I was looking at the ceiling of the plane, and I did notice we were on our way down.”

In and out of consciousness, Bukowski grabbed a parachute.

“How I got out, I don’t know.”

Once on the ground, he was in enemy territory: Germany.

“My back hurt, my legs hurt, I couldn’t walk,” he said. “I just stumbled.”

His eye was also badly hurt. Three German farmers grabbed him.

“They kind of roughed me up, lets say,” Bukowski said. “And there was this old lady — I call her the Frau of the house — she was pushing them around, screaming at them, even wrestling with them to leave me alone.”

The German military took him from there to a local hospital to patch him up.

He would become a prisoner of war.

“I kind of kept to myself — I kept a low profile.”

He was finally liberated by General Patton’s army 14 months later.

Bill Gosch has his own harrowing stories from war.

“If I had taken another step, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

Between 1942-45, Gosch, a Marine was sent all over the Pacific. On three separate occasions, he came close to not coming home.

“The ramp drops down, and I’m talking to some guy next to me, I haven’t the slightest idea who he was, but we’re talking, the ramp drops down, I jumped off, and look over and here’s the guy laying face down in the water.”

That was coming onto Guam.

On Okinawa, Gosch said he encountered nine Japanese soldiers. He made it out alive.

On another occasion, he was hit by shrapnel.

“All of a sudden, ‘BANG’ on my left knee, you could’ve hit me with a baseball bat,” he said.

Gosch said he was offered a Purple Heart for that, but he told his lead to give it to someone else.

Dr. John Long is a Purple Heart soldier. During his senior year of high school, his life would forever change.

“I came home from school one day, and my mother handed me a little card and she said, ‘You’ve got something here from Uncle Sam,'” he said. “It was my draft notice.”

Within 30 days, he was on his way. He was being trained to invade Japan, but then atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was instead sent to Germany.

“We were scattered all through Germany to replace all of those combat soldiers who were waiting to come home.”

He ended up in the medical detachment and said if he was drafted just six months prior, he doesn’t know if he’d be here today.

So he came home thankful and ready to give back. He went to chiropractic school with his GI bill and would spend the rest of his life helping other vets.

“I wanted to do everything I could to make life easier for them, and do what I could to help those soldiers,” he said.

Ahead of Veterans Day, News 4’s Kelsey Anderson talked with members from the greatest generation for about two hours.

In the end, they were all asked what their message is for the younger generations today.

“Patriotism is at our lowest end in the history of our nation,” Dr. Long said. “And I’m concerned about that, because I often think about — while God spared my life — 400,000 young kids never came back home, never came back home, so that we could have the freedoms that we have today.”

Gosch and Bukowski said, they didn’t put their lives on the line for young people to not live their lives to the best of their ability and be thankful for the freedoms they have.

And may we never forget these stories.

“We must never allow it not to be remembered what they sacrificed and what they’ve done… because they are America at its very best,” Dr. Long ended.

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Kelsey Anderson is an award-winning anchor who came back home to Buffalo in 2018. See more of her work here and follow her on Twitter.