Last Active-Duty WW II Vet Retires Associated Press Last Updated: Nov. 10, 1999 at 2:30:06 p.m.

Last Active-Duty WW II Vet Retires

From the Milwaukee Journal 11/11/99


WASHINGTON - A total of 16,112,566 Americans served in the U.S. military in World War II. Only one - 80-year-old Earl Fox - remains on active duty.

"I've tried to be so busy that they would allow me to continue on," the silver-haired Coast Guard captain said as he strode briskly down a wooden pier, his hands stuffed in the pockets of a navy blue uniform jacket.

During Veterans Day ceremonies Thursday at Arlington Cemetery, Fox will be recognized as the last active-duty World War II veteran. He retires Nov. 19 from the U.S. Public Health Service and his full-time job as senior medical officer evaluating medical disability claims at the Coast Guard Military Personnel Command in Washington.

"He was a gentleman in a bureaucratic world," said Capt. Paul Langlois, a pilot who was grounded on a medical disability but, with Fox's assistance, flew again.

Fox first donned the uniform of his country in 1942 when he was commissioned in the Navy. He left the service after the war and became a family doctor in Florida. At age 55, the Coast Guard coaxed him out of retirement to be a flight surgeon.

He never left the Coast Guard. "They never asked me to leave,'" he said.

Some of Fox's colleagues are young enough to be his great-grandchildren. His good health and sharp memory would allow him to work longer. But with his time in the Navy and Coast Guard combined, he has completed 30 years with the uniformed services - as long as any one of his rank may stay, said Lt. Cmdr. Gwen Keenan, a spokeswoman for the Guard.

Fox said people guess his age at about 65. His hands, freckled with brown age spots, hint he is older.

In the war, they were weathered by salty ocean spray while clenched to the rails of speeding Navy torpedo boats. Aboard submarines, they shifted hydraulic levers to make them surface and dive.

At war's end, Fox went to medical school. He helped raise three children and nurtured a family practice in St. Petersburg, Fla., for nearly 20 years until he retired in 1974.

Fox was a busy retiree, yet was feeling adrift when the Coast Guard asked him, within a year of his retirement, to help treat a heart attack patient on a merchant ship. He put on a flight suit and was lowered aboard by a rescue helicopter. The patient survived and Fox began a new life as a Coast Guard flight surgeon, treating injured and sick mariners at sea.

Fox was born in Petersburg, Va., in 1919, just after the end of World War I.

"When he was born, they thought he was dead," said his wife, Reba. "He wasn't breathing and they laid him over with the dirty laundry they had been using with the mother. He cried. For someone who started out `dead,' he's done really well."

When Fox was 7, his father, an Army officer, died in an automobile accident. His mother, a buyer for a department store in Richmond, Va., raised him and his two brothers.

Fox wanted to be a doctor, but after earning a biology degree at the University of Richmond, he went to the Naval Academy. He was at the academy on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and America entered the war.

A few months later, Fox was sent to Pearl Harbor and assigned to a squadron of torpedo boats. The mission: sink Japanese ships and supply boats. "We were fast. We could weave in and out. Every little wave was bang, bang, bang" against the hull, Fox said, clapping.

In 1943, Fox earned a Silver Star for rescuing a Canadian from Alaska's Kiska Island. The man had been sending coded radio messages about Japanese ship movements, but now was being tracked by Japanese soldiers on the island.

After the rescue, the torpedo boat crashed into rocks. The propellers were bent.

Fox and a dozen other sailors jumped into two life boats. As they rowed out into the frigid Bering Sea, the Japanese infantry on the island shot their abandoned torpedo boat full of holes. A day and a half later, they were rescued - by two Coast Guard officers on a fishing boat.

"It was foggy. We could hear them - putt, putt, putt, putt," Fox said, mimicking the engine. "They saw us about the same time we saw them."


Return to Coast Guard Stories