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WWII Vets Have All But Vanished From The Halls Of Congress

Military pallbearers carry the coffin of the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg into the Senate chamber on Thursday. He was the only remaining World War II veteran in the Senate.
Douglas Graham

Sen. Frank Lautenberg was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. There was a steady rain. Soldiers fired rifle volleys, a bugler played taps and mourners paid their final respects.

The New Jersey Democrat was 89 when he died this week — and his death marked a somber milestone.

For the first time since the end of World War II, there are no veterans of that war in the U.S. Senate. Lautenberg had been the only one remaining.

His military service was a recurring theme in tributes this week. At a service on Wednesday, Vice President Biden delivered a eulogy: "I'm told the first time ... he ever left the New Jersey/New York region was ... when he joined the United States Army at age 18. Was shipped out. When he came back, he'd proudly tell you — anyone who would listen — he went to Columbia. He just didn't go to school; he went to Columbia."

Lautenberg grew up poor and used the brand-new GI Bill to attend that prestigious university. Speaking with the Scripps Howard News Service in 2011, he said his time in the military helped him understand the need to give something to your country.

"Veterans became presidents. Veterans became senators, titans of business," he said. "The experience of sharing risk, of depending on someone else for your life, of being able to offer someone else support for their lives, changes the attitude."

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., is celebrated by friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill on Friday, as he becomes the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., is celebrated by friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill on Friday, as he becomes the longest-serving member of Congress in history.

The Last Of The Veterans

While there are no more World War II veterans in the Senate, there are still two in the House of Representatives: Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas.

On Friday, Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress in history. He has represented his Michigan district for 57 years, five months, 26 days and counting.

Dingell, now 86, also says the war years shaped him. At 15 years old, he was working as a congressional page in the Capitol when President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his speech on the day after Pearl Harbor, calling Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy."

Dingell, speaking Friday at an event at Atlantic Media in Washington, recalled watching FDR's entrance that day from the gallery above. As always, the president hid the effects of his polio.

"He actually walked. ... And he was supported by 10 pounds of iron — he had these frames that held him — and he would come in on the arm of one of his sons ... up a ramp to where the reading clerk is," Dingell recalled. He'd "stand in front of the speaker and the vice president and give his speech."

When Dingell turned 18 in 1944, he enlisted.

A Shared Experience

At one point in the late 1970s, more than 4 out of 5 members of Congress were veterans, most of those from World War II. Today, fewer than 1 in 5 members have military service on their resume.

Donald Ritchie, the historian of the U.S. Senate, says World War II forged deep congressional friendships across party lines.

"They had that one thing that they could put their arm around each other's shoulder and talk about, the South Pacific or about Italy or about this or that," Ritchie says. "There were all these points of connection that are lost now."

Ritchie says World War II was a shared experience — in the country and within the Congress. And it's an era that is drawing to a close.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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