More Often: Ceremonies With No WWII Vets Present

O'FALLON, Mo. --Tom Korth, 30, the Iraq war veteran who led Saturday's Pearl Harbor anniversary ceremony at O'Fallon City Hall, began by looking out over the audience and asking if there were any World War II veterans present.

The response was as silent as a Hawaiian dawn.

The silence at Pearl Harbor was shattered at 7:55 a.m. Hawaiian time, Dec. 7, 1941, with Japan's surprise attack against U.S. naval and air forces.

More than 2,400 Americans died. For the United States, World War II formally began the next day.

The silence among the 50 or so people who attended O'Fallon's annual remembrance ceremony 72 years later was a somber reminder that even the Greatest Generation -- the one that survived the "date which will live in infamy" and went on to defeat its attackers and their allies -- can't defeat the mathematics of mortality.

All those who survived the attack, and the subsequent war, and the ensuing years, now are pushing 90, at the youngest.

"Last year we had five of them. The year before that we had four. I know from the VFW that two of them did pass away," this year, Korth said.

"Every passing year they're getting older, obviously. They are dying off at a pretty rapid rate now. As they die off, their stories die off."

Among those whose stories weren't heard Saturday was Stanley Shylanski, 95, of Ferguson. An Army infantryman stationed in Hawaii during the attack, he was listed on the O'Fallon event agenda to speak. But his family called to say he was sick and that they didn't want to bring him out in the cold weather.

In a 2010 video interview with the Post-Dispatch, Shylanski, then 92, recalled hearing the planes as he was getting his breakfast in the mess hall.

"I'm proud that I'm part of history," he said. "All of us that were there, we have something that other people would never experience. Historically. Big things. Start of World War II, for us. I mean, that's quite an event.

"To endure something like that in history can't be duplicated. No way."

More than 16 million American servicemembers were involved in World War II, with the vast majority of them surviving it. As of May, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that about 1.7 million of them are still alive.

"We're burying our World War II veterans at an alarming pace," said Sheldon Hartfield, 54, Vietnam War veteran and chairman of the O'Fallon Veterans Commission.

"These gentlemen are older, and with the weather, they just couldn't make it."

He added: "We're dedicated to honoring them whether they're here or not. As long as there's breath in my body ... we will honor their memory every year."

O'Fallon's was one of several ceremonies around the region. At the St. Louis Soldiers Memorial downtown, organizers rang the bell from the World War I cruiser USS St. Louis 54 times -- once for each Missourian who was killed at Pearl Harbor.

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