10 November 2006

Ghoulish yet compelling

The ongoing deaths of veterans remind us of history and provide a grimly surefooted marker of the passage of time. My father, a World War II veteran himself (1914-1989), knew actual Civil War veterans. While he was growing up in Chicago, he witnessed the enormous, stately parades held by the Grand Army of the Republic. By the late 1930s, when my mother was a child in Brooklyn, they were down to a couple of cars. And when I was a boy in the 1970s, I encountered a few World War I veterans. Some time ago, I read a squib saying that there were around 1,000 left.

Turns out, my data were severely out of date.

According to the indubitable wikipedia, there are a total--worldwide--of 52 left; thus far in 2006, 39 have died. Two more have shuffled off this mortal coil just in the past two weeks or so. There are around fourteen left in the U.S. And Germany has eight! The true number is arguably lower, since for the purposes of the count they are now including people who served only one day (like Harold Gardner, who died recently in Pennsylvania at the age of 107). Leaving such quibbles aside, the wiki's information reveals how, even since the late 1990s, the situation has already changed:

in 1999 188 died
in 2000 137
in 2001 103
in 2002 97
in 2003 96
in 2004 100
in 2005 83

From these data one could reasonably infer that the last WW I veterans will be gone by the end of 2007. According to the Census Bureau, there were as of 2000 5.7 million WW II veterans left. Of course, more people served in that war. But I can distinctly remember that figure being reported as 11 million just a few years back. Still, if we take 2007 as the extinction year for the WW I vets, that is 89 years after the war's end in 1918, so the last WW I veterans are dying at the age of 107 or 108. (At minimum, they are all over 100 now. The absolute latest possible birth year would be 1902 or 1903, since some veterans were as young as fourteen or fifteen in 1918, having lied about their age to get in the service, etc. Imagine.) Now, 89 years after the end of WW II is. . .2034; I'll be around 68. But that's the extreme end of the spectrum; as a practical matter, en masse WW II veterans will essentially be gone by 2015 or 2020 (in that year, George H.W. Bush (he who raised the draft-dodging shrub), having been a 21-year-old pilot in 1945, will or would be 96).

So the end of an era is rapidly approaching us. The virtual extinction of the Greatest Generation will take place during the upcoming 9 to 14 years. That's not so long, folks. It's about same amount of time that has passed since 1992-1997. If you know people from that era, for Heaven's sake, talk to them, get them on video. They survived the Depression and World War II--no mean feat, that.