January 25, 2008 – Contrary to the line famously quoted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, old soldiers do die. And as they do, the organizations they kept alive are fading away.
Veterans of World War II are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, thinning the ranks in veterans halls, changing the roles of veterans groups and forcing some organizations to bequeath their buildings and property.
One of them is American Legion Pou-Parrish Post 132 in Smithfield, about 30 miles southeast of Raleigh. The post has made plans to turn over its assets before it dissolves, as many members think it will.
In December, Johnston Community College agreed to take over the post’s building, the fields once used by its baseball program, some land and a substantial bank account. The assets are valued at more than $1 million.
“It keeps our legacy going,” said Bill Wilkins, 73, a 26-year member of the post. “We’re getting older and won’t be around much longer, and the younger vets aren’t joining.”
The Legion is trying to stay vibrant — and the wars in Iraq and elsewhere are creating a new pool of veterans to help. But a wide generation gap between current members and new veterans threatens the existence of the Legion and many other veterans groups.
“You’ve got to constantly recruit, because we lose members every day,” said Jerry Tart, adjutant of American Legion Post 109 in Benson, and commander for the district that covers Wake and Johnston counties.
At about 700 members, the Benson post remains one of the state’s most active, holding weekly social dances and several charity events throughout the year.
But even it has seen a drop from a peak of more than 1,000 members. Tart said his post loses 30 to 40 members a year, many of them to the grave. He estimated that 40 percent of his members are veterans of World War II, while fewer than 10 percent served in the Persian Gulf or more recent conflicts.
Younger vets aren’t interested in polka dances and the old-fashioned post bars frequented by older vets.
And the differences extend beyond age. Many veterans of earlier conflicts were drafted, while newer vets were volunteers and career soldiers.
Nationally, American Legion membership has declined steadily for most of the past 20 years, from a peak of 3 million in 1989 to 2.6 million in 2006.