MARIETTA - Of the nearly 16 million American veterans who returned home from World War II, only about 1.5 million are still living.
And those soldiers are dying at the rate of 680 a day, according to the Veterans Administration.
The dwindling number of World War II vets, most in their 80s or 90s now, has hit close to home for members of the local Prisoners of War Chapter 15 who recently made the difficult decision to disband after 16 years.
Photo courtesy of Andy Matheny
Members of POW Chapter 15 are shown during the group’s last official gathering on Veterans Day at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5108 in Marietta. From left are Herman Zerger, Ed Chandler, Don Stewart, Gifford Doxsee and Harold Schockling.
"Nothing lasts forever, and it was a pretty emotional time when we disbanded," said Ed Chandler, 87, Caldwell, who was an honorary member of the chapter.
Chandler explained that, although he was not a POW, the group made him an honorary member because during the war he had been in close proximity to a couple of the members who were captured and imprisoned by the Germans.
"It was 50 years before I realized that (POW) Harold Schockling, also from the Caldwell area, had been captured within two miles of where my unit was fighting during the war," he said, adding that Coal Run native Don Stewart had also been captured around the same time just a few miles from Chandler's location.
"I'm probably the youngest of the POW chapter - I was serving in North Africa before my 18th birthday," Chandler said.
His brother, George, also served during World War II and died during the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
Chandler said he had been an honorary member of POW Chapter 15 for about 10 years, and enjoyed the monthly gatherings, sharing memories of war experiences and the camaraderie with the other members.
"We used to have members from Zanesville, Athens and Parkersburg. Many would bring their wives along and they would have refreshments," he said. "I was humbled and honored to be part of it, and I'm really going to miss it."
Gifford Doxsee, 88, of Athens served as adjutant and treasurer for the group since POW Chapter 15 was established in 1996.
"We were part of a national POW organization, and had between 20 and 25 members, but the attendance was dropping and although it was a very nice group, the time had come to disband," he said. "I live in Athens, and it's a long drive for me to the meetings in Marietta. So I submitted my resignation as adjutant and treasurer in September, and there was no one to take over the position."
The chapter was required to maintain an adjutant and treasurer to remain part of the national POW group - American Ex-Prisoners of War.
Doxsee said there were few members attending the chapter's monthly meetings - usually less than 10 who could make it to the sessions.
"I personally thought we shouldn't wait until there is just one of us left to disband," he said.
Doxsee said Chapter 15, known as the Mid-Ohio Valley chapter, would now be folded into the Fairfield Buckeye Chapter 4 in Logan.
Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, Doxsee spent five months doing slave labor for the Nazis, from December 1944 to May 1945, and was with Kurt Vonnegut, the writer who later wrote "Slaughterhouse-Five," who also served in the labor camps.
Another member of the chapter, Herman Zerger, 89, of Woodsfield, Ohio, spent three months as a POW in five different camps after being captured by German SS troops near the Rhine River in February 1945.
"Our camp was the last to be liberated by the Allies on May 8, 1945," he said. "There were about 100 non-coms (non-commissioned officers) in the camp, as well as hundreds of Russians who had been captured much earlier."
Zerger, founder of POW Chapter 15, said he's now the only World War II prisoner of war left in Monroe County and was sad that the chapter had decided to disband.
"I really hated that," he said. "When we formed the Mid-Ohio Valley chapter there were 25 members, but they're dying off, and the ones left were hardly able to get to the meetings."
Still, Zerger said he voted against disbanding because he felt the group should continue as long as possible.
"It was a sad day for me to see this group disband, but I plan to stay involved with the state and national chapters as long as I'm able," he said.