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Medal of Honor recipient Hershel "Woody" Williams, during a Medal of Honor Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in March, 2009.

Medal of Honor recipient Hershel "Woody" Williams, during a Medal of Honor Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in March, 2009. (Joe Gromelski/Special to Stars and Stripes)

They are all gone now. Every recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor in World War II — 473 exceptional human beings — has passed, the last being Hershel Woody Williams, 98, who died last Wednesday. His death marks the severing of the last link with a rare breed and underlines just how few of the men and women from the “Greatest Generation” — some 16 million Americans served in WWII — remain with us today.

It’s impossible to give an accurate figure, but the Department of Defense estimates less than 200,000 are still alive. They are almost all in their mid to late 90s and beyond. A fraction of this fast disappearing cohort actually saw combat.

The sun is indeed setting on this special group of Americans. Before we know it, there will be no more living eyewitnesses to the most celebrated episodes of the war. With each anniversary of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, the ranks become thinner. Soon, there’ll be no living survivors from the sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. No more officers who led the way off Omaha Beach on D-Day.

I have been privileged and honored to have interviewed over the last three decades many men and women, from different races and backgrounds, who witnessed key moments in WWII. In the last five years, I spoke with four of the last five living recipients of the medal, including Williams, the last to survive the ravages of time and age until last week.

They had a great deal in common. They’d grown up poor and knew real hardship and loss before the war robbed them of innocence and good friends. They were deeply modest and reluctant to talk about their own actions. None had set out to earn medals. They were just doing their job. Someone had to risk everything to save others. They did so. It was not a matter of choice. They wanted to get the war over and come home. To do that they knew they had to fight, and not back away. Everyone was forever grateful to survive.

Williams received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at the White House in October 1945. He struggled like countless veterans of that war, in which more than 400,000 of their fellow Americans made the ultimate sacrifice, to overcome “battle fatigue,” now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. His faith helped him recover. For almost four decades, he was chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Of those few veterans from that war still with us, some are no doubt still haunted by the true cost of freedom, by the enormous loss and tragedy. However hard he tried, Williams himself could not forget two Marines who fought with him the day he earned the Medal of Honor. “I didn’t even know them. They sacrificed themselves for me. I have asked the same question thousands of times in my life: ‘Why me?’ Why was I selected to be the person to receive the Medal of Honor, to have all the accolades, when they gave all they had — their lives?”

Why indeed? Fate? Pure chance? Had God decided to spare him? Each of the extraordinary Americans I talked to who earned the Medal of Honor in WWII felt blessed to survive the war and then to live so long. They were intensely patriotic. They hadn’t talked politics in foxholes. They’d simply depended on the American at their side. They worked as hard as they could to put the war, not behind them, but to one side, so they could lead productive lives. They were also grateful and proud to have been able to do their part to stop genocide, save democracy, and preserve their loved ones’ way of life. They remembered a united America, a proud America, a nation that had high ideals that they were ready to die for. They knew they had truly served a cause greater than themselves.

We owe it to the last of the greatest generation to continue their mission. In marking their passing, we must pass on the torch to future generations so they too can teach future generations the true price of our freedom, the critical importance of unity, and the eternal value of democracy.

Williams and his generation deserve no less. What they gave and what they saved, how they sacrificed together as Americans, no matter their race or politics, must be treasured now more than ever.

Alex Kershaw is an author, historian and board member of the Friends of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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