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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 11, 2002

WWII veterans fading away

 •  War veteran remembers the men of Crew 12

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ron Oba remembers fondly the overflow crowd at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel in 1993, when some 1,800 members of the 442nd Veterans Club gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famed World War II fighting team.

Last year, only about 350 members made it to the 59th anniversary of the founding, he said, and even fewer are signed up for next year's 60th event, to be held again at the Sheraton Waikiki.

"The boys are dying and getting sick and their handicaps are getting worse, so they can't come out,'' said Oba, an original member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and editor of the club's "Go For Broke'' newsletter.

Oba's lament reflects the loss of Hawai'i's World War II veterans at an increasing rate, with the youngest in their 70s and many already past 80.

According to the latest Census Bureau figures, Hawai'i lost nearly 10,000 World War II vets in the 1990s. In 2000, the census counted 22,561 World War II veterans, compared with 32,551 a decade ago.

In Hawai'i, civilians who once served in the military number 120,587 — about 1 in 7.5 of the state's adults, or 14 percent. That's slightly higher than the national figure of 13 percent, or 26.4 million veterans.

Even with the continuing loss of World War II veterans and Korean War veterans, Hawai'i gained more than 1,000 veterans during the decade. The 1990 census counted 119,256 veterans; in 1980, there were 103,774. Forty years ago, there were 89,098.

Other Hawai'i census figures from 2000:

  • Women make up 8 percent of veterans, higher than the national average of 6 percent.
  • Hawai'i had its most Vietnam-era veterans ever, 39,217.
  • Hawai'i residents who served in the military after Vietnam totaled 33,572.

Veterans officials questioned the census total, estimating that veterans number in the low 100,000s.

The census figures show the loss of World War II and Korean veterans has been more than made up by veterans who served since 1990, including the Persian Gulf War. Newer veterans numbered 18,312.

Still, the census figures seem high, according to both retired Army Brig. Gen. Irwin K. Cockett Jr., director of the state's Office of Veterans Services, and Fred Ballard, public affairs officer for the Veteran's Administration in Honolulu.

The figures might be skewed by those not claiming any VA benefits, or by migration of veterans attracted to Hawai'i's weather and recent upgrades in VA medical facilities — or by Filipino veterans fighting for VA benefits, they said.

Or it could be a fluke. The census numbers were collected from a 1-in-6 sample and weighted to represent the total population, meaning they are subject to sampling variability and other errors.

What is certain is that veterans here and on the Mainland are growing older and dying. There were nearly 6 million World War II veterans counted in the 2000 census, and officials estimate 1,500 World War II vets are dying across the country each day.

"I lost two friends just this week,'' Ballard said.

The number of vets who are 65 years or older is 40,759, or about a third of all veterans in Hawai'i. The loss of these older veterans is reflected in new census categories. In 1990, the census counted 132 World War I vets. In 2000, that category did not exist.

Oba views next year's 60th anniversary of the 442nd as the last big event for the highly decorated group, survivors of a combat team made up of Japanese-Americans who volunteered to serve in combat. They endured heavy casualties in a quest to prove their loyalty.

"We don't want to call it the last hurrah, because we did that before. But it probably will be our last big event,'' Oba said.

He reserved a full table and a half for his children and their children.

"In 10 years, most of us will be 90. Who knows how many of us will be around?''