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World War II vets marching into history

Medal of Honor recipient Bob Maxwell of Bend will be buried today

May 30 2019
Gary A. Warner | The Bend Bulletin

When decorated veteran Robert Dale Maxwell died in Bend on May 11, he was the most famous of an estimated 348 veterans of World War II who died that day.

It’s a number repeated every day and expected to grow as the 16 million who served during the war from 1941 to 1945 dwindle to just more than 400,000 today.

Maxwell was a 23-year-old Army Technician Fifth Grade — the equivalent of a sergeant — when he jumped on a German grenade in April 1945, saving the lives of fellow soldiers. For his actions, he received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest medal for valor and bravery.

Though grievously maimed, Maxwell recovered and lived for another 55 years. The man everyone called “Bob” moved to Oregon, became an auto mechanic in Redmond, married a woman from Terrebonne, raised a family, and taught auto mechanics at Bend High School, and community colleges in Bend and Eugene.

When he died in Bend at 98, he had four daughters, seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

A memorial with full military honors will be held Friday for Maxwell in Redmond before he is interred at Terrebonne Pioneer Cemetery, next to his wife of 54 years, Beatrice, who died in 2015.

At the time of his passing, Maxwell was the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor. The nation has bestowed the honor 3,505 times over its history. There are just 70 living recipients. Only three are among the 472 men who received the medal in World War II.

The oldest Medal of Honor recipient is now former Army Tech. Sgt. Charles H. Coolidge of Tennessee, 97, who led a small group of soldiers defending a key hilltop in France against a seemingly overwhelming German attack in 1944. Former Marine Warrant Officer Hershel “Woody” Williams of West Virginia, 95, received the medal for racing forward to attack a Japanese pillbox with a flamethrower during the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945. Former Army Tech. Sgt. Francis S. Currey of New York, 93, was honored for using a bazooka to halt a German tank advance at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in 1944.

Congress has proposed the last World War II recipient of the Medal of Honor to die will lay in state in the U.S. Capitol, an honor usually reserved for presidents and generals.

The increasingly rapid passing of World War II veterans is a matter of mathematics. The youngest World War II veterans are in their early 90s. In 1991, more than 4,000 survivors of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor paraded through Honolulu marking the 50th anniversary of the day that plunged the U.S. into World War II. For the 77th anniversary in December, 15 survivors attended the ceremony.

Veterans returning from World War II found a revived U.S. economy and were spurred to start families at a record pace, setting off the “Baby Boom,” a name attached to the generation born from 1946 to 1964.

Many of those children are at or near retirement age. Some of the oldest fought in the Vietnam War. They, too, are aging and dying. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced in 2017 that the number of living Vietnam veterans had been surpassed in numbers by the veterans of the Gulf Wars of 1990-91 and post-Sept. 11, 2001.

When the last soldier of a war dies, the conflict moves from memory to history. But that can take a very long time.

The Civil War ended in 1865. The last undisputed veteran was Albert Henry Woolson, who at 15 joined the Union Army after his father was killed at Shiloh. He served as a drummer boy with the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. Woolson died at 106 in 1956.

World War I ended in 1918. Army Corporal Frank Buckles from Missouri, who drove an ambulance near the front lines, was the last veteran to die, at age 110 in 2011.

With medical advances and longer life spans, the VA has forecast that the last World War II veteran might live until 2044 — 99 years after the end of the war in 1945.