World War II infantry group gathers for their last reunion

Thursday, August 25, 2011 | 9:28 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — They've been holding annual reunions since World War II ended. But this week's meeting in St. Louis of the Army's 84th Infantry Division is the last.

Members acknowledge that age has taken a toll on the men who fought their way across Hitler's Germany.

"I'm sad it's the last one, but I'm realistic enough to know it can't go on forever," Alfred Dion, an 85-year-old veteran from Hingham, Mass., told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Like everything else, things end." Dion was a machine gunner and received a Purple Heart in World War II.

Veterans of the 84th aren't alone. Members of the Greatest Generation are ending reunions of their wartime buddies all over the nation. The Post-Dispatch reported that the 99th Infantry Division, the 40th Engineers, the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team and the crew of the aircraft carrier Enterprise are among the groups that hosted their final gatherings in recent months.

About 16.1 million Americans served during World War II; about 2 million survive. The Department of Veterans Affairs says that on average, 790 World War II veterans die every day.

At the reunion in St. Louis, some said the end is a relief. Marie McDonald, 79, of Oregon, has been coming to the gatherings for 20 years with her companion, Brownlee Bush, 85, who served in the 84th. But travel is increasingly difficult as they age, and attendance in recent years has declined. Many at this year's gathering in St. Louis used wheelchairs, leaned on canes or struggled with hearing aids.

"It's a fun group, and it's sad that it has to stop, but it's got to stop sometime," McDonald said.

The 84th Division's 16,000 men, nicknamed "Railsplitters" began basic training in January 1943 and entered combat in Germany on Nov. 18, 1944. They fought in the Battle of the Bulge and crossed the Rhine River on April 1, 1945. Soon, the unit reached the Elbe River and patrolled the banks until the war's end. All told, the men spent 170 days in combat and earned seven distinguished unit citations.

The first stateside reunion was in Cincinnati in 1946, with about 700 showing up. Dion recalled that hundreds were still attending in to the 1960s.

But in recent years, as the unit's newsletter filled with obituaries, numbers have declined. Only about 100 men attended last year's reunion, prompting the decision to make this one the last.

The men, their families and their friends spent time at a hotel near Lambert St. Louis International Airport reminiscing. Tables in a meeting room hold some of the unit's memorabilia.

It also included a recent letter from Deborah Long of Chapel Hill, N.C., thanking the men, especially Company A, for liberating the Salzwedel labor camp where Long said her mother was held prisoner. Long wrote that her mother was the only immediate family member to survive the concentration camps.

"Were it not for the bravery of the 84th Division, I would not be here today, nor would my sister or our children," she wrote.

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