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Fewer WWII veterans remain to represent the nation's 'Greatest Generation'

Henry Kelly, former longtime editor and publisher of Park River (N.D.) Press, remembers his stint as a teenager in the U.S. Navy

World War II Memorial in Washington, DC at Sunset
A photograph of the World War II Memorial at sunset. The Memorial is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and is the first national memorial dedicated to all who served during World War II.
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LISBON, N.D. – Henry Kelly has vivid memories of his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Kelly is the former longtime editor and publisher of the Park River (N.D.) Press. He enlisted soon after graduating from high school in Minneapolis, at age 17, in 1944, and headed for boot camp in Idaho. Later, he boarded a ship in San Francisco and was stationed for 10 months at a naval base about 50 miles south of Tokyo where he and 135 other crew members built a signal tower.

Kelly, Henry Basic 9-14-2021.JPG
Henry Kelly, former publisher of the Park River (N.D.) Press, is one of the diminishing number of WWII vets. Now a resident of Lisbon, N.D., he has good memories of his service in the U.S. Navy in Japan.
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From the shoreline, they could see the battleship USS Missouri in the harbor about a quarter-mile away, he said. “I used to talk by flashing light, in most cases, to the guys on the Missouri.”

The Missouri is best remembered as the site of the surrender of the Empire of Japan, ending WWII in 1945.

After military service, Kelly earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Minnesota and, after a few years, joined his uncle’s newspaper operation in Park River. He eventually bought the paper.

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Now 95 and a resident of the North Dakota Veterans Home in Lisbon, N.D., Kelly is among a dwindling number of WWII veterans who are still around this Memorial Day to share their wartime experience, which defined a generation. His contemporaries are often termed “The Greatest Generation” for overcoming the Great Depression and then rallying to defeat Axis in the Second World War.

Kelly, former owner of 24 weekly newspapers and a couple of shoppers across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana, sold the papers and retired in 2001. He moved to Pennsylvania and later lived in Florida and Connecticut.

Looking back to the 1940s, he said, service in the Navy prepared him for life.

“I was making a way for myself – I was 17 when I went in – and so consequently you learn pretty soon who to trust and who not to trust. You try to develop your own values so they would ring true. I consider lying to be one of the major sins in life,” he said.

He remembers his Navy experience with fondness.

“Oh, I loved the Navy. You meet some great people. Some I’ve kept as friends.”

What military service in WWII meant to him is not easy to articulate, he said.

“Words haven’t been born yet to adequately describe the feeling that I have at times for all the different ways I went in life, so to speak,” he said. “I can feel what I can’t explain.”

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Kelly is not comfortable with anyone thinking of him as special or any kind of hero, he said. “I’m the most common guy you ever saw.

“I am lucky though. I found out early in life that luck is damn near as good as being smart or wealthy or being a neighborhood lothario or having all your hair,” he said. “I figure that luck kept me going.”

Kelly plans to return to Park River to be in the city’s Fourth of July parade, he said.

“So I’m still looking forward – to the next step.”

Vanishing breed

Kelly is a member of a vanishing breed. From 2010 to 2020, the total population of veterans in the U.S. declined by nearly 5 million, from 22.6 million to 17.8 million.

The number of WWII veterans is especially falling fast, and in North Dakota, the total has fallen to 1,325, according to a recent release from the Porch research group. Only South Dakota (1,278), Vermont (1,152), Wyoming (731) and Alaska (554) have fewer.

The states with the highest number of WWII veterans are California (53,807), Florida (48,220), New York (31,730) and Pennsylvania (29,198).

In Minnesota, the number is 9,987.

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Declining veteran population

The population of WWII veterans in the U.S. boomed in the middle of the 20th century, with the introduction of the military draft in 1940 and the beginning of the U.S. involvement in WWII the following year.

In 1940, only 9% of adults had served in the U.S. military, but just one decade later, that figure had more than quadrupled to 37%, and peaked at 44% in 1970, according to the Porch report. That peak figure represents veterans of WWII, the Korean War in the 1950s, and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Since 1970, however, the percentage of veterans in the country’s population has declined each decade. The draft ended in 1973 and, over time, the aging and passing of older generations of veterans has reduced the percentage of former service members.

Veterans of WWII totaled about a half-million in the U.S. in 2020, and the Census Bureau estimates that by 2030, only 8,000 WWII veterans will remain.

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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