Sunday, December 10, 2006

Last African American World War I veteran dies.

I'm working on a paper that I have to turn in tomorrow, so I'm writing this post in haste. That said, I feel obliged to call your attention to this obituary in today's New York Times:
Moses Hardy, believed to be the second oldest man in the world and the last black United States veteran of World War I, died Thursday. He was 113.

Evelyn Davis, 68, one of Mr. Hardy's eight children, said her father died at a nursing home in Aberdeen [in Mississippi]. He would have been 114 on Jan. 6.

Robert Young, a senior consultant for gerontology for Guinness World Records, said that research by his group, National Public Radio and others had been unable to locate any other surviving black World War I veterans. Only 10 to 12 American veterans of that war remain, Mr. Young said. Mr. Hardy was sent to France and apparently saw some combat.
What really caught my eye about Mr. Hardy's obituary was the statistic claiming that no more than a dozen U.S. World War I veterans remain alive. As I've written on one or two previous occasions, I feel a real sadness at the loss of historical memory that occurs when the last participants of an important historical epoch pass away. No matter how hard we strive to record the oral histories of the last surviving World War I veterans or to organize and preserve documents relating to their lives, something irretrievable is lost each time someone who actually lived through that conflict dies. To put it very simply, there's a difference between listening to a tape recording of a person talking about their experiences and having the opportunity to speak with that person directly. Not only is there a greater sense of intimacy and of actual contact with history when one is able to speak with a survivor of some great event, but in having the opportunity to ask questions and actually dialogue with another person one can learn more than one ever can simply by listening to an oral history.

Where World War I veterans are concerned, opportunities for dialogue and learning are becoming fewer and fewer between. As I've written before, I can still recall a time when veterans of the First World War were still numerous and nimble enough that one would invariably encounter a contingent of them in local Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades. As the number of Americans who can recall their participation in that long-ago conflict dips into the single digits, an important piece of our history will soon be lost forever. AMDG.


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