SAN ANTONIO (AP) — On New Year's Day 1942, the young American civilian nurse wandered through a dark, empty hospital, hours before Japanese forces invaded Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. No military members were left to raise the American flag or play "The Star-Spangled Banner."
At sunrise, she walked alone on the road to her family's home and an uncertain future as the sound of advancing enemy troops thundered in the distance.
San Antonio resident Dorothy Davis Thompson, now 96, captured that night and the terrifying days that followed in "The Road Back: A Pacific POW's Liberation Story," published in 1996 by Texas Tech University Press.
Her tale of survival during World War II as one of 3,000 allied civilians held at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp became a lesson for her children: Jack Thompson Jr., 62; Margie Camp, 60; and Peggy McCray, 56. While growing up on the East Side, it taught them that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"We just called it mom's story," McCray said. "It was a little daunting knowing what she went through."
Her mother was one of the 16 million men and women who served in uniform during World War II.
According to the Veterans Affairs Department, as of Sept. 30, 2012, 1.4 million World War II veterans were still living. But an estimated 642 such veterans die each day, many of them taking their war stories to their graves.
Historians say time is slipping away for Americans to seek out veterans and home-front civilians to record their oral histories and narratives, like Thompson's story, for future generations.
"In a very short time, we will not have many of these veterans around to share those stories and keep World War II within our living memory," said Keith Huxen, senior director of research & history at New Orleans' National WWII Museum.
He encouraged the public to capture narratives from loved ones who served in World War II, with either an audio recorder or a video camera.
"If you know your veteran's story ahead of time, you can ask more pointed questions that will bring out their memories more fully," he said. "Sometimes a little preparation helps spark memories."
Huxen said many veterans never spoke about the war because they couldn't dwell on the carnage and death they'd seen.
Huxen recalled when a veteran told him that his grandchildren never knew that he had taken part in the D-Day invasion at Normandy until President Ronald Reagan commemorated the 40th anniversary of the landings.
"That kind of broke the dam, and veterans realized their children were interested in what they had done," Huxen said. "I'm happy to say that wave has continued to this day."
The Institute of Texan Cultures has made an effort to record the stories of local WWII vets, said Sarah Gould, lead curatorial researcher, who oversees its oral history program.
Currently, the ITC has 19 interviews with WWII and POW narratives. Gould said one of the volunteer jobs available with the docent program is recording oral histories. She said the museum doesn't have the resources to collect stories from across the state, but it does have a small team, which includes retired military members, that sometimes records local narratives.
"The thing about oral history that's very different than the traditional history that you read in a textbook is that this is one person's perspective, and you'll never get that exact experience from anyone else," Gould said.
"You realize how much dimension we're losing to the history of WWII and that each of those stories could add a little extra bit of information to the traditional telling of the story."
Video producer Lee Dunkelberg documented similar stories in an award-winning three-part series, "World War II: In Our Words," that aired in 2007 on KLRN as a companion to the Ken Burns series "The War." The local series featured narratives from veterans, families and concentration camp survivors.
"The idea of getting something out is so important," he said. "Some did horrific things and had horrible things happen to them, but they don't try to explain anything away. They say they owe a debt to those that didn't make it back."
These days, Thompson's memories as an internee with her parents, Alfred and Marjorie, and older sister Eva have become hazy. Now her husband, Jack, and her children keep her story alive.
She was born in Shanghai, where her father was a businessman and her grandparents had been missionaries.
After the Japanese invaded China, her family moved to Manila. She worked as a civilian nurse at Steinberg General Hospital. Her fiancé, Lt. Don Childers, was killed before the end of the war when a U.S. Navy ship torpedoed the Japanese ship where he was held captive.
The Japanese interned U.S. and European civilians at the University of Santo Tomas, a 48-acre campus guarded by armed soldiers. Women and children lived in the main building, 25 to 45 per classroom, sleeping on bug-infested floors. Men lived in the gymnasium and the education building. Thompson helped set up a 60-bed clinic in an engineering building where she cared for patients around the clock with little or no sleep.
"Most of the internees were reasonably middle-class people who had been living a real nice life in Manila," said Jack Thompson, 93. "Now they had nothing."