Time has finally caught up with World War II submarine veterans.
Submariners who served during the war suffered the proportionately highest casualty rate in the military, with 52 boats lost and nearly 3,600 of the 16,000 sailors assigned to them killed. Though they comprised less than 2 percent of the Navy's sailors, submariners are credited with sinking 55 percent of the Japanese vessels during the war.
They are also credited with holding the Japanese Navy at bay while U.S. shipyards built new destroyers, battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines after the attack at Pearl Harbor.
In 1955, the survivors created World War II Submarine Veterans, a congressionally chartered organization established to perpetuate the memory of their shipmates who died during the war.
But on Sept. 7, after the organization's national convention in Norfolk, Va., attracted only 62 veterans, they voted to disband.
The decision is having an impact closer to home. For nearly two decades, an annual World War II submarine veterans ceremony has been held at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay to honor sailors who survived the war and commemorate those who died. At its peak in the mid-1990s, the ceremony attracted as many as 800 sub vets from as far as California.
But Friday will be the last official World War II submarine veterans ceremony at Kings Bay.
Keith Post, the civilian Navy League's Georgia area president, said only 31 World War II sub vets will attend the ceremony. Last year, 45 showed up.
Post, a Navy retiree and executive director of the St. Marys Submarine Museum, hosts events to occupy the veterans while they are in town for the ceremony. This week, the veterans toured a submarine at Kings Bay, attended dinners in their honor and met with active-duty sailors.
Post said the opportunity to host the veterans is the highlight of the year at the museum.
"You have a chance to mingle with history," he said. "This is the week of the year I look forward to the most."
The veterans also have an impact on the active-duty sailors at Kings Bay.
"They are more proud to wear their uniform this week," Post said.
Scott Bassett, a public affairs officer at Kings Bay, said an annual ceremony will continue to be held in coming years, but the new ceremony will honor submarine veterans from all eras.
Post said he hopes World War II veterans will continue to attend the new ceremony as long as they are able. He said he plans to enjoy their annual visits as long as they are capable of coming to the ceremony.
"They are proud of who they are and what they accomplished," he said. "It's a great time to listen to sea stories. The history that these men have and the stories they share, it's absolutely priceless."