95 year old Bill Watkinson and 97 year-old Arthur Leach have been coming to the USS Yorktown Reunions just outside of Charleston for decades. Both were fighter pilots aboard the ship during World War II. But each year, they find fewer of their own.
"It's interesting to see those of us who are still standing and those of us missing," said Watkinson. "The missing list is getting pretty long.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates more than 370 World War II veterans died each day last year. It says only 558,000 are left of the more than 16,000,000 who served. That's roughly 4 percent.
But these men don’t need statistics. They see it. Their generation is vanishing and with it, the history only they can share.
"We had 105 pilots aboard in our squadron,” said Leach. “There’s only one other, two of us left."
The yearly reunion traditionally begins with a memorial for the Yorktown veterans who have died over the past year. Many served in Korea, Vietnam and World War II. Families come from all across the country to pay tribute to their loved ones. Some scatter ashes into the Charleston Harbor. Others ceremoniously toss carnations into the water.
"We came to pay tribute to my dad," said Jeff Hanson. His father Ralph was 92 years-old when he passed away in February. Hanson says his final wish to have his ashes spread over the port side of the air craft carrier. He too served during World War II and was one of 11 veterans from that generation remembered for their passing this year. Ironically, he was a plane captain. He would have helped men like Bill Watkinson and Arthur Leach.
"He was the guy who strapped the pilot in right before takeoff and gave him the thumbs up and everything was ready to go," said Hanson. "He was so proud to be a part of it."
His family is proud too. They’ve been coming all the way from Minnesota almost every year just to hear their dad spin stories about his service and reunite with old friends. Hanson fondly remembers a group of Citadel cadets who listened in.
"My dad was telling stories and pointing , and with every story these cadets inched closer and closer. They followed him around like a puppy dog. That was the highlight of his trip."
The family says they will continue the tradition and keep coming, not just for their father, but because they too want to learn firsthand about the men and women who’ve been called the greatest generation, before they’re gone.
"There’s a guy I’d like to track down," said Hanson. "I hope he’s here."