Seventy-six years ago, Japanese planes attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. A day later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested and received a formal declaration of war against Japan, and the U.S. was in World War II.

The attack spurred many young men and women to sign up to serve. According to the World War II Museum, 16 million Americans served in World War II.

Today, 558,000 World War II veterans survive, but they are dying at a rate of 362 per day. One way we honor these American heroes is with military services by American Legion and VFW honor guards as they are laid to rest.

John Metzger of the Benton American Legion said as members of the honor guard age, some posts have had trouble filling their spots.

Recently, Crain Funeral Homes and Black Diamond Harley-Davidson teamed up to help make sure this recognition continues. Along with volunteers from 17 veterans groups from Southern Illinois, donors from the community, and corporate sponsors, the businesses raised $30,000 to be split by those veterans groups.

“The idea behind the whole day of giving is to bring awareness to local honor guards [also called ritual teams], their communities and younger generation veterans who need to start stepping up and filling those spots,” said Kelly Thorpe, community education coordinator for Crain Funeral Homes.

Thorpe added that the money can only be used for honor guard or ritual teams, including expenses for uniforms, travel, ammunition and other items. A lot of people do not realize honor guard members pay for a lot of things out of their own pockets.

“The average age of honor guard member right now is 65 to 70. It seems like there is less and less importance being put on what those men and women do,” Thorpe said.

As a funeral home employee, Thorpe knows how important the honor guard rituals are to the families who survive.

“We really appreciate what those men and women do,” Thorpe said.

Metzger said Benton has about a dozen members on its honor guard team, including several younger veterans and auxiliary members.

“We have two Iraq veterans who have just joined our ranks. They are real proud to be part of the unit. We also have a couple auxiliary members who are in our unit. One is a ladies auxiliary member, and we also have a Sons of the American Legion member who are in the unit,” Metzger said. “We are real proud to have that diversity.”

So far, they have never had to turn down a funeral.

Metzger said some of the guys are getting too old to perform the duties of an honor guard member. One gentleman who helped for 25 or 30 years quit because he couldn’t stand and walk like he used to do.

The Benton and Anna posts did their own version of an honor flight. Metzger said several of the men who went along were shot down over Germany and did not want to fly. The group took a bus with about a dozen veterans. Only one of those World War II veterans is still living.

“Those World War II guys are getting hard to find. The ones we are burying now are those guys,” Metzger said.

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Reporter

Marilyn Halstead is a reporter covering Williamson County.

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