Veterans Day in the US began life on Nov. 11, 1919 as Armistice Day, to mark the end of World War I - the "war to end all wars." In 1954 the name was changed to Veterans Day to honor all living veterans of our armed forces. In 1968, the holiday joined other floating days to allow three-day weekends for federal employees, but understandable umbrage from veterans forced the US Congress to revert back to the original observance date a decade later.
Just a few American veterans of World War I are still alive, all over 100 years old. They're joined by a scattering of centenarians across Europe, Canada and Australia. Very soon, the last living links to it will be gone.
According to the most recent data I could find from the US Department of Veterans Affairs:
■ There are 2.9 million American veterans of World War II still alive. More than 1,000 die each day. Fifteen years from now, based on population and mortality rates, it's estimated the number of members of the Greatest Generation will have dwindled to 115,000.
■ The number of living American veterans of the Korean War is also about 2.9 million, while 7.23 million Vietnam vets are still alive. And 2.27 million veterans of the first Gulf War live among us. There are more than 600,000 living veterans of the Global War on Terror, the official name of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All told, 23.7 million veterans of the Armed Services are still living. That's a lot of people to thank.
My father served in the Navy as a radar operator on the USS Norris, a destroyer, for three years, one month and four days. He enlisted in St Louis after graduating from high school in Willow Springs, Montana, and went to Radarman School in Norfolk, Virginia, where his pay grade was US$300 a month. By the time he left the service in July 1954, he had received a US$100 raise and four medals related to his service in the waters off Korea during that conflict.
I found his discharge and other service-related papers a few weeks ago when cleaning out a safety deposit box of my parents. There's a wallet card certifying my dad an honorably discharged veteran of the armed services. Below that is his radarman certificate and a notice of his eligibility for veteran's benefits, along with other official documents - all faded now, a few creased and fragile because my dad carried them in his billfold.
Tucked inside the file folder is a small line drawing of the ship, which reminds me of the faded color photograph of the Norris that hung in my parents' Longview home for many years. I guess it's packed away in the few dozen boxes of family memorabilia now in storage.
My dad joined the Navy out of patriotism and to see the world - and that he did. The Norris sailed a peacetime mission through the Mediterranean and then was sent through the Suez Canal to Korea. He saw combat but always downplayed the experience, pointing out the relative safety of life on a destroyer when compared with that of infantrymen fighting in the bitter cold of a Korean winter.
In The Coldest Winter, his last book before dying in a car crash earlier this year, writer David Halberstam described the Korean War, coming just five years after the end of World War II, as a: "Grinding, limited war. Nothing very good, the nation quickly decided, was going to come out of it. When servicemen returned from their tours, they found their neighbors generally not interested in what they had seen and done. The subject of the war was quickly dispensed with in conversation. Events on the home front, promotions at the office, the purchase of a new house or a new car were more compelling subjects."
My dad also joined the armed forces, as did so many, to use the GI Bill of Rights. He wanted to go to college and become a commercial artist, buy a house and raise a family. In the same file, I come across a pencil self-portrait of my dad in his naval uniform, titled Masayasu, 1951. He's young and skinny, looking more serious than his 18 years.
Not long before his honorable discharge he married my mom, a nursing student he met while the Norris was being repaired at the Boston Naval Shipyard. I popped out about a year after his discharge, while my dad pursued his career dreams and became a commercial artist. He used the GI Bill to buy a house in New Hampshire, then another in Texas. I don't remember him ever venturing an opinion about the Korean War. He just served his time and came home.
These days, my dad is weak and ill. A medical mistake left him permanently disabled at 58 years old, and 17 years later he's in nursing care here in Lufkin. My mom lives on the other side of the building in an assisted-living apartment. But he perks up whenever I ask about his naval stint, though his words are slurred and hard to understand. I tell him about finding the self-portrait and his discharge papers, and he smiles.