Two weeks ago, Capt. Earl R. Fox learned that he is the last World War II veteran still on active duty in the U.S. armed forces. Since then he has dwelled in memories, wondering whether he will be worthy of the fallen when he walks among Arlington's serried tombstones this afternoon.
"I have felt a weight on me to expend every effort to make it honorable for them," said the 80-year-old Coast Guard physician.
Fox will have breakfast at the White House today and then speak at a wreath-laying ceremony at the national cemetery. This will be his final Veterans Day in uniform--he is retiring next week--and he describes himself as "the last direct physical link" between today's military and the warriors of Midway, Normandy and Iwo Jima.
"One generation forms the backbone for the next to build on," says the text he has prepared for the commemoration. "As my generation fades into the mist of collective memory called tradition, you will continue the process for the next generation of your sons and daughters. In this way, those who have given the last full measure of devotion will live forever . . ."
As the Virginia native rehearsed his brief speech for a visitor to his office at Coast Guard headquarters yesterday, his voice cracked. He stopped in mid-sentence, reached for a handkerchief and apologized for the show of emotion.
"I had classmates who did not come home," he said. "I had shipmates who did not make it. I knew these men well. I knew what they thought and what they thought about. And I am filled with humility and faith in God, because I feel like I am here today because of their courage and bravery."
After five years of service on patrol-torpedo boats and submarines, Fox left the Navy in 1947 to attend medical school and then to prosper as a physician in St. Petersburg, Fla. In 1974, he retired at the age of 55 to enjoy his 43-foot yacht and life as a yacht club commodore who made a practice of entertaining officers from the local Coast Guard air station. He was at the club one day when an emergency call came in.
A man aboard a pleasure boat was suffering a heart attack. With the Coast Guard's doctor away, Fox was asked to help. Within minutes, he was being lowered from a helicopter at sea.
Fox enjoyed the experience so much that he agreed to join up when the local commanding officer suggested he could get a commission under a program that waived age limits for physicians. He made only one demand: He wanted to go to flight school. Eventually, he learned to fly helicopters as well as airplanes.
For 16 years, until 1990, Fox served as a flight surgeon at Coast Guard stations up and down the East Coast, making more than a dozen helicopter rescues. For the past nine years, he has worked as the senior medical officer in the personnel department at Coast Guard headquarters.
Combining his Navy and Coast Guard service, Fox has now spent 30 years in the military, the point at which most officers must retire. But he said his decision to leave uniform is driven primarily by a desire to spend more time with his wife of 56 years, Reba.
It might be mere serendipity that this genial octogenarian is the last of 16 million World War II veterans to don his ribbons and decorations every working day. But Fox seems the perfect representative of a generation that, in his words, "experienced both great times and times of desperation."
Thinking back to nighttime battles fought in tropical waters, Fox said, "when things get tough you need more to fall back on than yourself and the present." He had the heritage of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, all military officers. But he also had shipmates. "We were bound together by common purpose," he recalled. "The trust we had in each other made us strong."
Fox has a small photograph, now fading to sepia, that shows 10 sailors in jaunty poses at the bow of a PT boat, one of the mahogany-hulled speedsters dispatched on hit-and-run missions against enemy fleets. Seated on stools before them are two officers. It's the summer of 1943 and Fox is already a decorated combat veteran and boat commander at the age of 23. To his right sits an even younger man, Al Haywood, just out of Yale and assigned as the boat's executive officer.
A few weeks after the picture was taken, they were on patrol off the coast of New Guinea when a single Japanese airplane appeared out of nowhere. It strafed the boat. A sailor fell wounded. Haywood rushed to his side. As the fighter wheeled and dove for another run at the boat, Haywood threw himself over the injured man.
The airplane's gunfire "stitched him from head to toe," recalled Fox, who buried Haywood at sea. The wounded crewman survived.
"Remembering people like Haywood and the many, many others like him is important," said Fox, "because those memories of honor and sacrifice are the fabric our country is made of."
Veterans and dependents of various conflicts on the pension rolls as of July 1, 1999:
Conflict Veterans Children Parents* Spouses
World War I 447 6,581 2 37,568
World War II 741,783 19,647 2,319 288,742
Korean conflict 265,220 4,400 2,041 65,681
Vietnam era 830,601 15,563 7,098 107,627
Gulf War 272,142 7,314 369 5,053
Peacetime 557,979 8,631 2,761 36,717
*including non-blood relations
SOURCE: Veterans Affairs Department
CAPTION: Capt. Earl Fox, a Coast Guard doctor, served in the Navy during World War II and will represent the members of his generation of service at Veterans Day ceremonies.