Horseheads veteran turns 100: Why celebrations are more important each year for WWII heroes
Like many World War II veterans, Joseph Along never talked much about his military service.
But the longtime Horseheads resident certainly appreciated the recognition when people in the community turned out Sunday to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Along's family worked with local veterans organizations, service clubs and others to organize a parade and celebration for the U.S. Army veteran, who became a teacher in Horseheads after he returned from the war, and was also active in several community organizations.
"He was always a humble person but always involved. He got involved in organizations that were community-based," said Along's son Jim.
"He didn't talk much (about his military experience). I didn't find out until I started looking at his discharge papers, which he thankfully saved," Jim Along said. "He didn't do combat. His company was in charge of procuring equipment and materials for units that were up in front in the China-India-Burma Theater. He wasn't in combat, but serving in that hellhole, it was no picnic."
World War II generation quickly disappearing
Joseph Along is also part of a rapidly dwindling population of veterans from that era.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only about 240,000 were still alive in 2021, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA estimates on average, 234 World War II-era vets die every day.
"We have six left. One of our last (WWII veteran members) was Warren Miller, who was 98 and died a few months ago," said Chuck Muller, commander of Bentley-Trumble American Legion Post 442 in Horseheads, who helped organize Sunday's parade to honor Along.
"There are very few World War II veterans left," Muller said. "The same is true with Korean War vets. They are going down fast too. The Chemung County Honor Guard has done a lot of funeral services in the last year."
Joseph Along entered the U.S. Army at age 21 in 1943 and was a technician in the 675th Quartermaster Base Depot Co. He was honorably discharged in April 1946.
While serving in the China-Burma-India Theater, Along was awarded the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal and World War II Medal.
After returning to the United States, Along taught at Horseheads High School from the early 1950s until 1976, and also founded what was then the Chemung County School Districts Federal Credit Union (now First Heritage Credit Union).
Along still lives with Catherine, his wife of 72 years, in the Horseheads home his children grew up in, said Jim Along, who added three of his sisters live nearby and stop in daily to help their parents remain independent.
Honoring veterans who are gone, and those still here
There are nearly 4,400 World War II-era veterans interred at the Bath National Cemetery and another 2,581 at Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, according to cemetery Director Duane Mendenhall, who encouraged residents to honor the memories of those who served.
"We invite everyone to visit our national cemeteries to read the names, periods of service, and award data, to keep our veterans' memories and their selfless sacrifices in service to our country alive," Mendenhall said.
For World War II veterans who are still with us, the Department of Veterans Affairs offers many services they may not be aware of.
"If there are WWII veterans currently not using their VA healthcare benefits it is never too late," said Bruce Tucker, director of the VA Finger Lakes Healthcare System. "I encourage them to call the Veterans Service Center at 607-664-4899 to apply for their benefits."
WWII vet teaches important life lessons
Joseph Along also has a message for veterans, along with everyone else.
While he never bragged or talked about his service, Along has still managed to quietly convey an important message about how to conduct one's life, his son said.
"He taught us humility and loyalty to job and friends and family, and service to the country and community," Jim Along said. "Do the right thing with honesty and integrity. He's part of a dying breed who didn't go around making a lot of noise about what they did."
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