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The last man standing

Published May 21. 2011 09:01AM

When I think of Memorial Day, I remember an incident from years ago.

It happened when I was a youngster watching a Memorial Day parade. I never missed a parade because I grew up on the main street of town and all of the parades passed by my house.

On this day, the marching units, honorees, and bands passed by with usual fanfare.

But one person stood out. I'm not sure why. But I couldn't take my eyes off one of the dignitaries. He was a very, very old man seated on the back of a fancy, polished convertible. He held a small American flag in hand, and he looked at me as the car drove by. I waved to this man, so old and frail. I was only a youngster, and he seemed to be the oldest man I ever saw, at least 100.

The sign on the side of the car stated: Spanish-American War Veteran.

That man is long gone and I don't know who he was. But ever since, I've been fascinated with the idea of a Last Man's Club.

With Memorial Day upon us, I thought it'd be interesting to take a look at a few final survivors, especially since one passed away just recently.

The last survivor of the Spanish-American War was either Jones Morgan or Nathan E. Cook. Jones was an African-American soldier who served in the U.S. Army. He ran away from home and sneaked into the Army at age 15. He served as a cook and a horse wrangler in the 10th Regiment, U. S. Cavalry, from 1896 to 1900. He died in Richmond, Virginia, at the claimed age of 110.

Nathan Cook retired from the U.S. Navy in 1947 as a lieutenant commander. He died at age 106 and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix.

The last surviving American veteran of World War I was Francis Buckles who died just three months ago.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with the 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in Europe.

During World War II, he was captured by Japanese forces and spent three years in the Philippines as a civilian prisoner. After the war, Buckles married and moved to Gap View Farm near Charles Town, West Virginia. They say he was a widower at age 98, yet continued to work on his farm until the age of 105. He died February 27 of this year.

How about Dewey Beard?

He was a Native American from the Lakota tribe and the last survivor of Battle of the Little Big Horn. He also fought at Wounded Knee. He died in 1955 at 98.

It's easy to get caught up in these fascinating details.

But one of the most sobering statistics centers on our World War II veterans. They are the generation with which we're most closely bonded.

The average age of a World War II veteran is 84, and we're losing 1,000 of them every day. Make sure you thank them and tell them you appreciate them, along with those who served in Vietnam, Korea, and later conflicts, too.

Take time this Memorial Day to remember the true meaning of the holiday. It's nice to think of the day as the start of summer, or maybe the first outdoor barbecue.

But it's even more important to contemplate the entire concept of Memorial Day. Freedom isn't free. It comes with an expensive price tag. Freedom is very costly, and on Memorial Day, we acknowledge our debt.

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