PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — A Marine who fought in the Battle of Okinawa urged Americans on Friday to honor those who served in World War II now, while veterans from that conflict are still alive.
E. Bruce Heilman, speaking at a ceremony marking the 66th year since the end of the war, noted fewer than 2 million of the 16 million men and women who served in the war are alive. They are dying at a rate of 30,000 per month, he said.
Some 20 World War II veterans boarded the now decommissioned battleship, the Missouri — the same battleship where Japanese signed surrender documents formally ending the war — to participate in this year's ceremony in Pearl Harbor.
Heilman, who is a spokesman for the Greatest Generations Foundation, predicted not many would be able to come back in a decade's time.
"Most of those remaining, including those in the front row, will have passed on, so that few, if any, will be present for the ceremony of the 76th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Those of us still here will be of age 95 to 101," Heilman said. "Therefore the importance of remembering now the sacrifices and acts of heroism representative of their service cannot be overstated."
Heilman, who is now the chancellor of the University of Richmond, joined the Marines at age 17. He was sent to Okinawa, where one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought from April to June 1945, and served during the postwar occupation of Japan.
Some 300 people — including active duty sailors, Marines, airmen and soldiers — joined the veterans at the ceremony aboard the Missouri's teak deck.
The USS Missouri was anchored in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and Army Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu came aboard to sign the documents. Several Allied leaders, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz, were also present at the time.
The vessel, the last battleship ever build by the United States, is now a museum called the Battleship Missouri Memorial. It has been moored in Pearl Harbor for the past decade, overlooking the spot where the USS Arizona sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.