Our Greatest Generation and This Year’s Memorial Day

Butte, Montana’s WWII memorial, with Korean and Vietnam memorials in background.

This weekend our nation puts ephemeral concerns aside as we observe Memorial Day, the holiday established to honor the Union’s Civil War dead, and has since expanded to include continuing military deaths.

While the U.S. has not been in major conflicts the last couple years, there were still, according to Military Times, 24 deaths in action in 2016 and 11 so far in 2017.

This year, military personnel killed in action include people who lost their lives in places such as Mogadishu, Somalia, Mosul, Iraq, and various actions in Afghanistan and Syria.

In recent years I’ve been tracking, at Memorial Day, the declining ranks of the Greatest Generation, our World War II veterans.

Over 16 million people served in U.S. military forces during World War II, from 1939 through 1945. Of those 16 million around 400,000 people died either in battle or through non-theater deaths.

The number of WWII veterans still living is kind of a moving target. A recent release from the Department of Veterans Affairs there are still 1,711,000 living veterans. On the other hand, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans estimates that the surviving numbers of WWII veterans is currently around 500,000, and we continue to lose these veterans at the rate of about 372 per day. It is expected that the last of the 16 million people to serve during WWII will die sometime around 2035 at the age of around 110.

Some notable WWII veterans died this past year, including one of our country’s great heroes, John Glenn, a Marine aviator during both WWII and Korean wars. He then went on to be a test pilot and an astronaut, and the first astronaut to orbit Earth. Glenn retired from the Marine Corps and after a short career in business was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1998, at age 77, he went on a nine-day mission on the space shuttle, the oldest person to go into space. He died December 8, 2016 at age 95 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Another WWII Marine was actor Hugh O’Brian, who became famous as TV’s Wyatt Earp. O’Brian (born Hugh Krampe) dropped out of the University of Cincinnati in 1943 to enlist and at age 17 became the youngest drill instructor in the Marine Corps. A lasting achievement was to found the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, a non-profit youth leadership program for high school students. O’Brian died last September at age 91.

Another actor was James Noble who served in the Navy during WWII, primarily on a destroyer that specialized in locating and sinking Japanese submarines. Noble had a long acting career on Broadway and movies, though his best-known acting role was as a somewhat scatter-brained governor in the TV series “Benson.”

Still another veteran who went on to an acting career was George Kennedy, who had a long career as a character actor, earning an Oscar in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” Kennedy enlisted in the Army Air Corps at age 18 in 1943. He had some difficulties finding his military niche. At 6’ 4” and 210 pounds he was considered too big for flight duty. A sergeant told him, “We can either put you in an airplane or a 200-pound bomb in an airplane. We’d rather put the bomb in the airplane.” Nevertheless, he went on to a 16-year career in the Air Force, rising to captain before a back injury ended his military career. Kennedy died in February 2016 in Middleton, Idaho.

From the perspective of a long memory, I still recall the death of the last Union Civil War veteran in the mid-1950s, and, marching in my high school band every Memorial Day, when there were still Spanish-American War veterans as the honored old-timers. One of my first bosses was a World War I veteran, and the WWII vets were the heroes of my youth.

Finally, don’t forget to vote in tomorrow’s special Congressional election. All those people we honor this week served and sacrificed to ensure our rights as citizens. Don’t fritter it away.

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