The Last WWII Veteran on Active Duty Served for Nearly 55 Years After the War

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Coast Guard Capt. Earl Fox, 80, salutes during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Fox is the only veteran of World War II still on active duty. (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 1st Class Pete Milnes)

Dr. Earl Russell Fox spent most of his life in and around the military. The son of an Army officer, he was born in an Army hospital in 1919. He joined the Navy during World War II, stayed in the Naval Reserve after the war and then joined the Coast Guard -- at 55 years old.

When he was recognized by President Bill Clinton on Veterans Day 1999, he was the last World War II veteran still on active duty and was 80 years old. He finally retired from the military just a few days later, after reaching the maximum number of years in service for his Coast Guard rank.

Fox was born on Sept. 23, 1919, at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Army doctors believed the baby was stillborn and left for dead in a laundry bin. Only when doctors returned later to confirm the baby's gender did they find him crying in the bin.

He studied at the University of Richmond before the United States entered World War II, already gaining leadership experience as class president and quarterback of the college football team. Fox graduated in 1941 and joined the Navy as a commissioned officer the next year. He commanded patrol torpedo (PT) boats for much of the war, including PT-22s at Midway and in Alaska's Aleutian Island chain.

While in the Aleutians, Fox and his crew were forced to abandon ship for lifeboats after their PT boat was grounded. Believed to be dead (yet again), his personal effects were sent home to his wife, but Fox was actually rescued by local natives, who took him in until he could return to service.

In 1943, he was transferred to PT-349, stationed near New Guinea, where his boat was strafed by a Japanese fighter. He ended the war in the submarine service aboard the USS Bang, hunting Japanese shipping and supporting the Marianas Islands invasions. When he left active duty for the Naval Reserve, he had been awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars.

PT-105, a patrol torpedo boat in the same class as Fox's PT-349. (U.S. Navy)

He spent the next few years in medical school, training to become a doctor. He spent 23 years in the reserve while working in a family practice before the Coast Guard came calling. At age 55, Dr. Fox joined the active-duty Coast Guard as a flight surgeon. Given his medical background and time as a sailor, the Coast Guard granted Fox an age waiver.

After first learning to fly helicopters, Fox assumed his duties at various posts in North Carolina, New Jersey and New York before ending his career as a captain and senior medical officer at the Coast Guard's Military Personnel Command in Washington, D.C. He had spent 30 years in the Coast Guard. He was 80 years old at the time.

"I feel that it's time for me to move on and open the way for younger people to come in and advance their ideas, just as I have had the privilege of using my own," he told CBS News.

Dr. Fox was invited to attend the Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery with President Clinton in 1999. There, Clinton recognized him as the only World War II veteran still serving on active duty, out of the 16 million Americans who served during the war.

''I think he has earned his retirement,'' President Clinton said. ''But, Captain, on behalf of a grateful nation, we say thank you for your service.''

Fox retired the next week, with decades of active and reserve service under his belt. He returned to his longtime home of St. Petersburg, Florida, where he spent the rest of his life before dying of cancer on his 93rd birthday, Sept. 23, 2012.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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