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Veteran official: WWII soldier a dying breed

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ARLINGTON, Va. -- It's one of the most solemn ceremonies performed each day in America, but during times of war, the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery takes on a special meaning.

Punctuated by three sets of gunshots off in the distance -- a 21-gun sendoff for a fallen soldier, sailor, airman or marine -- the ceremony snaps Jim Watson, whose back is crooked with age, to a sturdy attention.

"It's been a life's dream to come out here and see this," the 83 year-old man from Columbus, Ohio said as he watched the U.S. Army guard pace in front of the tomb. "It's something special."

Watson, a former U.S. Army soldier who spent more cold and sleepless nights in the frozen ground at Bastogne in Belgium during World War II than he cares to remember, says he still occasionally gets flashbacks when a stiff, cold breeze cuts through the night back home.

Watson's journey to Arlington is one of thousands that happen every day at the cemetery, which is home to more than 330,000 graves of U.S. service members, their immediate families and foreign and domestic dignitaries and government figures.

The fastest growing contingent of honorees are Watson's brothers and sisters in arms; World War II veterans.

Kaitlyn Horst, a spokesperson for the cemetery, said that Arlington currently buries, on average, 27 to 30 people per day, with more than half being World War II veterans or their spouses.

"While statistics are not available for the number of World War II veterans buried here, the rate at which our World War II veterans and their spouses are passing away is certainly a contributing factor to the increased number of funerals here at the cemetery," she said.

The WWII generation -- the men and women who fought to protect the Allies from the spread of Nazism and imperial Japan -- are reportedly dying at a rate of 1,000 or more each day.

In 2007, the U.S. Veteran's Administration estimated that there were roughly 2.5 million WWII vets left. If the 1,000 number is correct, then currently, there are only 1.7 million WWII vets today.

The rapidly decreasing numbers of WWII vets has not been lost people throughout the country. In 2004, Congress and the president dedicated the National WWII memorial on the mall in Washington to the 16 million Americans who fought or served during the war.

Even today, pockets of groups around the country are racing to record the stories of the WWII generation before they're lost forever.

In Georgia, 15 different institutions have partnered with the U.S. Congress to participate in the Veteran's History Project, which records oral histories of veterans from WWI through present day conflicts around the state, in hopes of capturing the tales of American heroes.

Eugene Clark, an Albany native and WWII vet featured in a story in The Albany Herald, knows the reality of decline of his generation.

Clark shared that only two members remain of his bomber crew that valiantly cruised the skies over Japan during the final days of the war.

"There are just two of us left, as far as I know," Clark said. "Me and the other guy is in DeLand, Fla., I believe. There aren't many of us left."