They’re going fast, soon they will live on only in the realm of history.
When Bill Field was a young Army infantryman in the summer of 1944, he spent a night on the beach in Saipan shooting one after another Japanese soldier to keep the 43rd Division of the Imperial Japanese Army from capturing a swamped American tank and turning it against his U.S. Army unit. Later he found himself on Okinawa and one of the 4,900 in his division wounded in the Pacific.
It’s not the killing of enemy soldiers that’s important to remember — and there was plenty of it, according to the remaining local World War II veterans — it’s that they did what they did because it needed to be done.
“It was not a nice job,” Field, now 92 and one of the Central Peninsula’s remaining World War II veterans, said. “It was something we had to do to keep our freedom.”
Field joined millions of others to save the world from European tyrants and Japanese imperial expansion and then returned to normal lives and built the America of today.
Alaska Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs Administrator Veteran Verdie Bowen’s best guess is that 2,285 World War II veterans remain living in Alaska. It’s a guess because the last time a census asked about military service was 2000.
Bowen can’t break the numbers down below statewide and said the veterans from World War II are now passing away at such a rate they will soon be as sparse as veterans of the Great War were two decades ago.
“In the next few years we’ll be looking at them like World War I veterans,” Bowen said. “One or two left.”
Recently Bowen had led an effort to get as many World War II veterans recognized and honored while it remains possible. He said it’s akin to “racing the wind.” No matter how fast you run to catch them you never quite do.
On Sept. 19, Bowen’s team awarded Arthur Owens a Silver Star and Purple Heart, along with five other medals at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Owens had won the medals 68 years earlier, for saving fellow tank crewmembers during a battle in Germany, but was not given them.
“The paperwork fell through the cracks,” said Brig. Gen. Leon M. Bridges, assistant adjutant general of the Alaska Army National Guard.
Bridges said that the government has found that some of the service members due awards were overlooked.
Bowen said his office is still locating people who left the service without their due recognition, but time is running out. Owens died a week after receiving his Silver Star.
Nationally, 4.3 million World War II have died since the beginning of the 21st century. This year, the men are dying at a rate of 680 every day, according to a Department of Veteran’s Affairs study. In Alaska this year 311 will die and join a total of 248,203 across the nation.
As of last week the American Legion Post 20 had 94 men in their database listed as World War II veterans, Vietnam veteran Alvin Diaz said.
It’s not likely that all those men are still alive.
“We haven’t heard from some of them in a while,” Diaz said.
Two local veterans have died since Memorial Day, Soldotna resident Lyle Edgington and former Soldotna Mayor Bill Reeder. Reeder is being memorialized today.
Once, the 16 million service members were the toast of every veterans’ club in the nation. And, they dominated those halls well into the 1990s when Korean and Vietnam Veterans became the next largest groups.
“The World War II guys are slowing down,” Diaz said.
There are still a few who remain active at AL Post 20.
Several World War II vets remain regulars at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10046 in Soldotna, a slightly more exclusive club.
Vietnam veteran and former Navy man Ralph Sterling said World War II veteran Mike Logan, 91, should get a best attendance award at the post. The retired First Sergeant and artillery man the members call “Top” goes to the veteran’s club everyday and has for years. Just last week, the 91-year-old Logan cleared the pool table during a game.
When Logan was 22-years-old — 69 years ago this week— he drove a half-track from La Havre, France through the Battle of the Bulge into Luxembourg and on into Austria before Adolf Hitler shot himself as the war in Europe ended.
“We moved all over,” Logan said of his unit’s fighting route through Europe.
Lee Dotson, 96, was a gunner who manned a .50 cal machine-gun hoping to protect the engines on the right side of a B-24 Liberator during 30 missions flown with the 445th Bombardment Group 8th air force flying out of England over the Channel into Germany and France.
“I did my thing like everyone else,” Dotson said.
Dotson thinks that along with the war veterans the folks who supported the war from “back home” should be remembered on each Veteran’s Day.
“What a wonderful country backing us up,” he said. “I can’t thank the American people enough of the way they supported us.”
His memory goes to a time when national moral was high; everyone was in on the war some building tanks others sending care packages or just keeping the men advised with a word form back home.
It’s remarkable how it all worked out, he said.
While most connect Veterans Day to the Nov. 11 ceasefire that later became known as Armistice Day and the end of World War I, the celebration known today was signed into reality on Oct. 8 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“In order to insure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose,” wrote Eisenhower that day.
“I like to be remembered” Dotson said.
Field’s war was in a time unlike today when the nation saw less than one percent of the population has serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. Field said that so many people were involved during World War II that everyone knew someone in the service.
“They all stood behind us, they all sacrificed,” Field said. “I don’t like the way things are going now.”
Field said he would do it again, though he made it out by the “skin of” his “teeth.”
Monday Field will celebrate with his fellow veterans, so many of who have passed. As a member of the rifle squad at the Veterans Day celebration at Soldotna Sports Center he will honor the newest rotation of war veterans.
One thing the former machine gunner noted about veterans from today’s wars is the lack of attention and support given by the American people who will readily line up for the “Greatest Generation.” He acknowledged that the American public treated Vietnam veterans “like they were dirt.”
“Vet’s today are not getting the support due to them,” Field said. “They should be rewarded for it with respect and support when they get back.”
On past Veteran Day’s you would find Dotson catching a game at the local bar or with friends at the American Legion or VFW. They are a good organization that does a lot for veterans, he said.
“Any veteran that is qualified should become a member,” Dotson said.
Field echoes the idea that the new crop of war veterans should join the VFW and other veteran organizations. He’s sympathetic to the idea that combat veterans might like to take a break from the service for a while after getting out — it’s a good thing to forget about, you have to move on with life.
“More of the new vets should join us old guys,” Field said. “We’re dying off.”
This year Dotson finds himself less mobile and likely to stay home on Veteran’s Day.
“I’ll hold down my chair and drink a few beers, hopefully with company,” he said.
Reach Greg Skinner at email@example.com