Lloyd Brown remembers Armistice Day in 1918 as few — ever so few — veterans can.
“For the servicemen there were lots of hugs and kisses,” recalls Brown, of Charlotte Hall, Md., a teenage seaman aboard the battleship USS New Hampshire, in port stateside when the fighting stopped. “We were so happy that the war was over.”
Now 104, Brown adds, “There’s not too many of us around any more.”
No one knows exactly how many of America’s World War I veterans will celebrate Veterans Day, which marks the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, that ended what then was considered the Great War. An estimated 2 million Americans served in Europe after the U.S. entered the war in 1917.
Today, the Veterans Affairs Department lists just eight veterans as receiving disability benefits or pension compensation from service in World War I. It says a few dozen other veterans of the war probably are alive, too, but the government does not keep a comprehensive list.
The Census Bureau stopped asking for data about those veterans years ago. Using a report of 65,000 alive in 1990 as a baseline, the VA estimates that no more than 50 remain, perhaps as few as 30.
World War I, fueled by intense nationalism and conflicting economic and colonial interests, began in the Balkans in 1914 and quickly spread across Europe because of military alliances. The major allied powers were Great Britain, France and Russia, and they were opposed by Germany, Austria-Hungary and a few others.
The U.S. remained neutral even as Germany threatened its shipping and as anti-German sentiment grew among Americans. Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917 at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson said.
More than 10 million troops died before the war ended with Germany’s surrender. Of the U.S. troops, more than 116,000 died and more than 200,000 were wounded.
Long lives common among American veterans
Long-lived veterans are common among America’s warriors. The last veteran to fight in the American Revolution died at age 109 in 1869, according to Defense Department statistics.
Other wars and the ages of their last veterans the year they died: the War of 1812, 105, 1905; the Indian Wars, 101, 1973; the Mexican War, 98, 1929; the Civil War, 112, 1958; and the Spanish-American War, 106, 1992.
The ranks of all World War I veterans grow thinner as the months pass. One of France’s seven remaining veterans died two weeks ago, and the last Australian to serve in a war zone died a week earlier.
In the U.S., the last known American veteran wounded in the war died at 108 in January 2004. West Virginia’s last veteran passed away in October 2004, and Iowa lost its only remaining Great War veteran two months later. An Alabama veteran of the war died last March at 110.
With each death, what was called “the war to end all wars” fades in American memory.
“It’s a war that’s out of mind,” says Sean Flynn, who teaches World War I history at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D. “The U.S. entered it late and we have no real connection to it.”
Lingering impact from the war
Unlike the wars that followed, World War I doesn’t have the visual record so important to becoming part of American consciousness, Flynn says. Yet its impact can be linked to many problems facing the world today, including conflict in the Balkans and the rise of Arab nationalism that occurred after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
“We learn about war through television and through film,” Flynn says. “There’s just not a lot of moving-picture footage of World War I. There’s no visual image there for the public to identify with.”
Lloyd Brown spends little time thinking about the days his ship escorted convoys in North Atlantic waters threatened by German submarines. Living alone in a house in southern Maryland, just a few blocks from his daughter, Nancy, he does not believe that his war has been forgotten and feels satisfied with the attention paid to its veterans over the years.
“You can’t celebrate World War I year after year after year, because there are other events taking place,” says Brown, who watches the news each day to keep up with the world. “You have to honor them.”