The population of living World War II veterans fades daily. Fewer than 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served remained in 2018, according to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics.
Cruz De Leon, 94, is the only one he knows of at the Buena Park Senior Center, where he goes daily for lunch and fellowship.
But at American Legion Post 291 in Newport Beach on Thursday, he was among peers from the Greatest Generation.
The American Legion hosts an annual luncheon and dance for the most senior veterans — those from World War II and the Korean War, all now at least in their mid-80s. Thursday’s party also celebrated the legion’s centennial.
About 40 veterans of both wars turned out, with dozens of their guests. An Army nurse danced to the live music in her uniform skirt suit. De Leon reminisced on the waterfront patio.
He told how he volunteered for the service as soon as he was 18. He’d been itching to for months. In 1938, at 13, he hitched a ride out of Texas on a freight train with friends and landed in Los Angeles, where his sister lived. He had a sovereign spirit and by 17 was living in a $3-a-week room at Temple Street and Grand Avenue at the edge of downtown. He split the rent with a buddy and worked in a restaurant.
“Everywhere I go, I see a guy pointing his finger at me, saying ‘I want you,’ ” he said. “That guy’s telling me something.”
He heeded the call of the Uncle Sam posters and did his Army basic training near Santa Barbara in 1943 and sailed to Liverpool, England, around Christmas to begin his time in World War II’s European theater.
For a few months after V-E Day, De Leon enforced curfew outside Frankfurt in Allied-occupied Germany. In November 1945, he returned to the United States and headed to California by train to be discharged at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.
He married, raised five children and worked for 40 years painting and electroplating aircraft components before retiring in 1993. Now a widower, he lives independently and only recently gave up driving; a friend from the senior center offered to take him to Newport.
On Thursday, De Leon put on his Army dress uniform jacket, medals and ribbons affixed at the left breast. His European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal showed five service stars. One, he said, is for the invasion of Normandy.
Post Commander Jon Reynolds said the luncheon is so popular that the post has to open its lawn for parking.
Reynolds, 81, a 26-year Air Force veteran, knows aging vets like to meet up with people who share their culture.
“Just getting together with people while we’re still alive is a joy,” he said.