In 1956 I remember my father pointing out a story in the Lincoln Leader, our hometown newspaper.
The headline read, “Last Civil War Veteran dies.” The veteran’s name was Albert Woolson, a Union bugler, age 106, the last surviving veteran from either side of the Civil War. The article was especially meaningful to my father who remembered talking with Civil War veterans as a very young boy. Remarkably, a considerable number of those who wore the blue and the gray were still alive in the teens and twenties of the last century.
My father was a history teacher who had a keen sense of the defining events that gave special meaning and context to the great American experiment. The passing of the last tangible human connection to the Civil War period was a poignant event for my father, something I didn’t fully understand then, but I’m beginning to now. In 2011 a decade after my father’s passing, the last American veteran of World War I died at the age of 110, his name was Cpl. Frank Woodruff Buckles — may he rest in peace.
Here we are in the spring of 2017 with Armed Forces Day just passed and Memorial Day fast approaching. This is a time when we reflect on a relatively tiny segment of our community who has served in the military and among them those who offered their last measure of devotion in defense of freedom and liberty. I grew up among Korean and World War II veterans and, like other baby boomers, enjoyed Hollywood’s interpretation of their exploits. And, like my father, the very presence of these men and women have made this period of American history both meaningful and tangible and as they slowly fade away, I too am feeling my father’s sense of loss. The youngest of the World War II veterans are now in their late 80s and that includes those who exaggerated their ages to enlist. Within a decade, only a handful of the greatest generation will remain, and some readers of this column will surely live to see the Olympian headline, “The last WWII veteran has died.”
Of the 16.1 million World War II veterans, fewer than 700,000 are living today. They are departing at a rate of several hundred each day. While their final leave is rapidly approaching, there are still a myriad of ways we beneficiaries can show our gratitude and respect.
One way is the Honor Flight program that transports World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial located in its rightful place at the foot of the Washington Monument. Since 2005, more than 200,000 veterans have flown free of charge to visit their memorial and to see and to feel first-hand the sentiments of a grateful nation. Each of these veterans, many in wheelchairs or using walkers, are accompanied by an Honor Flight volunteer. Especially heartwarming are the airport receptions for these men and women as they are escorted by uniformed service members through both departing and receiving terminals — travelers stand and applaud, hugs are shared and tears are shed.
In 2015, I had the pleasure of coordinating an Honor Flight for my uncle, Capt. Eldon Dyer, U.S. Army quartermaster. Eldon was drafted in 1941 and following commissioning was deployed to the India/Burma Theater where his command supported construction of the Burma Road. The road was needed to supply Chinese allies surrounded by invading Japanese forces — these were the remarkable times of Vinegar Joe Stillwell, Merrill’s Marauders and the Flying Tigers. Eldon, who died this year at the age of 102, was just a simple soldier doing his duty and to him and to the millions who served with him much was expected, much was given and much is owed.
For those veterans who remain among us today, we offer a heartfelt and grateful Hail and to Eldon and his band of departed brothers and sisters we offer a fond and grateful Farewell which is most ably expressed in the lyrics of Taps:
“Day is Done, Gone the Sun, From the Lake, From the Hill, From the Sky.
All is Well, Safely Rest, God is Nigh.”
If you wish to participate in history and sponsor a World War II or Korean-era veteran through the Honor Flight Program, a charitable nonprofit organization, you can reach them locally at: Info@PugetSoundHonorFlight.org, or call 253-303-1130.
Terry Oxley is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He is retired from the military and a communications career at Puget Sound Energy.