I think this article needs no introduction. Sadly, these brave men of the WWII Generation are passing away at an alarming rate. What is even worse? That their final reunion was relegated to some hotel near an airport, instead of one last parade from what should be a grateful nation, if not the world.
Gentlemen, there isn’t much I can offer….except my silent thanks and a salute to you all.
Members of the Army's 84th Infantry Division are gathering in St. Louis this week for their last annual reunion. Age has taken a toll on this once-hardy group of World War II veterans who fought their way across Hitler's Germany.
"I'm sad it's the last one, but I'm realistic enough to know it can't go on forever," said Alfred Dion, 85, of Hingham, Mass., a machine gunner who received a Purple Heart. "Like everything else, things end."
It's a similar story across the country as more of the men who made up the Greatest Generation are calling it quits when it comes to annual get-togethers with their wartime buddies. The 99th Infantry Division, the 40th Engineers, the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team and the crew of the aircraft carrier Enterprise are just a few groups that have hosted their final gatherings in recent months.
Of the 16.1 million Americans who served during World War II, about 2 million survive. Each day about 790 die, according to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics.
In some ways, the final reunion comes as a relief, said Marie McDonald, 79, of Oregon. She has been coming to the gatherings for 20 years with her companion, Brownlee Bush, 85, who served in the 84th. Travel for some participants has become difficult. Attendance in recent years dwindled and often included younger family members who came along to provide assistance. Many of this year's attendees sat in wheelchairs, leaned on canes or struggled with hearing aids.
"It's a fun group, and it's sad that it has to stop, but it's got to stop sometime," McDonald said.
The 84th Division's 16,000 men began basic training in January 1943. They entered combat on Nov. 18, 1944, with an attack on Geilenkirchen, Germany, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and crossed the Rhine River on April 1, 1945. Within two weeks, the unit had reached the Elbe River, where it halted its advance and patrolled the banks until the war's end. The men spent 170 days in combat and earned seven distinguished unit citations.
"These guys fought a war," McDonald said. "We won a war in four years, when now the area they're fighting in is no bigger than Texas, and they've been there 10 years, and it's sad. We had a reason to fight. We wanted to be free."
The group held its first stateside reunion in Cincinnati in July 1946, just months after returning home. About 700 showed up.
Dion said he remembered hundreds of veterans still attending in the 1960s.
But more and more in recent years, the pages of the unit's newsletter, The Railsplitter, were filled with the names of those who had passed away. With only about 100 men attending last year's reunion, the members decided on one final hurrah.
They have spent a few days at a hotel near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport reminiscing about their wartime experiences, past reunions and comrades now long gone. Today they'll hold a memorial service and banquet.
Tables in the group's meeting room hold some of the unit's memorabilia and a recent letter sent by Deborah Long of Chapel Hill, N.C.
The letter thanked the men of the 84th for their service, especially Company A for liberating the Salzwedel labor camp where Long said her mother was held prisoner. Long wrote that her mother was the only immediate family member to survive the concentration camps and she later emigrated to the United States and had her own daughters.
"Were it not for the bravery of the 84th Division, I would not be here today, nor would my sister or our children," she wrote.
This was the first reunion for Johnnie Walter of Conway, Ark. His wife died three weeks ago, and his kids thought it would be good for him to get away from home. He said he was happy he came, even though he had yet to spot anyone from his unit.
"I haven't seen a one yet, but I've met nice guys like him," he said, gesturing to Daryl Mitchell, who sat beside him.
Mitchell, of Nixa, Mo., a veteran of many reunions, said he'll miss the camaraderie "of setting around talking and carrying on."
"We foot-patrolled and walked through the snow ..."‰," he said.
"And slept in it," Walter offered.
And off the conversation went, two new friends sharing old stories.
McDonald said she knows how difficult the end of the reunion will be. In some cases, it will mark the final goodbye.
"Some of them we'll never see again," McDonald said. "It's hard to make friends like these."