Memorializing Valor: Honoring

World War II Veterans on Memorial Day 2024


Pictured: The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, VA which was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Joe Rosenthal that captured six World War II servicemen raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi over Iwo Jima in 1945.

On this Memorial Day, we honor the brave Americans who served during World War II, the largest and deadliest conflict in human history. This global struggle, which started in Europe with the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, involved more than 30 countries and claimed the lives of over 50 million combatants and civilians by the time it ended in 1945 (1). From the beaches of Normandy to the islands of the Pacific, U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen fought with unwavering courage and risked everything for freedom and democracy.
The Greatest Generation, as they are rightfully called, faced immense  hardships and challenges (2). During bitter battles fought in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific, they stood firm against tyranny and oppression. They exemplified resilience, determination, and selflessness in the face of adversity.
As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, we remember the contributions of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during the war. Their bravery and fortitude were instrumental in securing victory for the United States and its allies. Over 400,000 of these heroes paid the ultimate price for that triumph (3). 
Today, we reaffirm our gratitude and respect for the Veterans of World War II and all those who have served since. Their legacy lives on in the freedoms we cherish and the values we uphold. Let us honor their memory by ensuring that their sacrifices are never forgotten, and their service is always celebrated.

Sacrifices for democracy and freedom

The World War II Memorial, which stands in Washington, DC, honors the 16 million Americans who served in the military as well as all who supported the war effort on the home front. May 29, 2024, marks the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the memorial. The monument's 56 granite pillars represent the U.S. states, territories, and Philippines, and a wall of 4,048 gold stars represents the 405,399 Americans who lost their lives in the war (4). Over 290,000 Americans died in combat, 114,000 died while in service from other causes, and 671,000 were wounded during the war (3).
At the end of the war, the United States launched efforts to recover the remains of Americans who went missing in action. From 1945 to 1951, the remains of more than 280,000 individuals were recovered and identified (5). Recovery efforts were renewed in the 1970s and the remains of an additional 1,000 Americans were identified and returned to their families (5). More than 72,000 servicemembers are still unaccounted for, but they are not forgotten (5).

Acknowledging the contributions of racial minorities and women

The. U.S. armed forces in World War II reflected the multi-racial and ethnic composition of American society. The military’s ranks included over one million African Americans, 500,000 Latino Americans, 25,000 Native Americans, and between 250,000 and 350,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (6). African American and Japanese American soldiers served in segregated units. Not until after the war in 1948 did President Harry Truman mandate the desegregation of the armed services. Approximately 400,000 women also enlisted in the military as members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, Women's Army Corps, and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. Restrictions on their ability to serve were likewise lifted in 1948 by an act of Congress (7).
Pictured: Lt. (junior grade) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills became the first African American women commissioned as officers in the United States Naval Women's Reserve (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service - WAVES) (1944).

The highest honor for selfless service   

A total of 473 World War II service members have been awarded the Medal of Honor, which is our nation’s highest military decoration for valor. Many of the Medals were issued posthumously to soldiers who died in action. Additionally, over two dozen Medals have been awarded in recent decades to individuals who were denied this honor at the time due to their race, ethnicity, or religion. Seven African Americans and twenty-two Japanese Americans were given the Medal by President Bill Clinton. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Medal to seven World War II Veterans. In 2018, President Donald Trump presented the Medal to Pauline Conner, the wife of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Garlin Conner (8).
Pictured: U.S. Navy Commander Howard Gilmore’s wife and children receiving the Medal of Honor on his behalf (Commander Gilmore was killed in action aboard the USS Growler SS-215. Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.)

Living legends from the Greatest Generation

As of September 30, 2023, more than 100,000 WWII Veterans are still living, including about 6,000 women. Their median age is 98 years old.  Approximately 5,000 of surviving WWII Veterans also served in the Korean War and/or Vietnam Era. By 2034, the number of living WWII Veterans is expected to fall to 1,000 (9).
 
The top five states of residency among WWII Veterans are California, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York and Texas (9).




Honoring President Lincoln’s commitment to provide for Veterans and their families

VA's mission is "to fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors." World War II Veterans and their survivors receive a wide range of VA health care services and benefits, including disability compensation, home loan guarantees, and educational assistance. Special benefits are also available to WWII Veterans who were prisoners of war or exposed to radiation. In fiscal year 2023, over 5 million Veterans of all eras received compensation for service-connected disabilities, including 11,000 WWII Veterans. About 6,000 WWII Veterans also received pension benefits, while 22,817 surviving family members received VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (VA DIC) benefits. Additionally, VA issued home loan guarantees to 24 World War II Veterans and 3,218 surviving spouses who had not remarried (10).
In honor of their service and sacrifice, Veterans and eligible family members have the right to be buried in a national cemetery. VA operates 155 national cemeteries and 34 soldiers' lots and monument sites in 42 states and Puerto Rico. From the Civil War era to the present, over 5 million people, including 1.5 million WWII Veterans, have been laid to rest in a national cemetery. Many million more Veterans are buried in VA-funded state, tribal, and territory Veteran cemeteries or in private cemeteries with a VA-provided marker or headstone (11).

Invitation to Apply for Benefits

VA encourages all Veterans to learn about VA programs and to apply for the benefits and services they have earned. Programs are administered through three VA administrations. Follow these links for detailed information, eligibility criteria and application instructions.

MyVA411

With one phone call, Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors can easily access information on VA benefits and services or be connected to an expert for answers to questions.
1-800-MyVA411 (800-698-2411)

PACT Act

The PACT Act is a new law that expands VA health care and benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.

Contact Information

Prepared by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Enterprise IntegrationOffice of Data Governance and AnalyticsNational Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. For questions, please email us at VANCVAS@va.gov.
Sources
  1.  World War II: Causes and Timeline | HISTORY, History.com. [Accessed May 5, 2024]
  2. Brokaw, Tom. The greatest generation. Random House, 2000.
  3. America's Wars Fact Sheet.pdf (va.gov), Department of Veterans Affairs. [Accessed April 24, 2024]
  4. History & Culture - World War II Memorial (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). U.S. National Park Service. [Accessed April 24, 2024]
  5. DPAA World War II Home Page (crmforce.mil). Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. [Accessed April 25, 2024]
  6. Minority Veterans Report, 2017. National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.  [Accessed April 26, 2024]
  7. Women Veterans Report. National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.  [Accessed April 26, 2024]
  8. Veteran Population - National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics (va.gov) National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.  [Accessed April 26, 2024]
 
Photo credits
Title photo: U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington, VA, Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.
"Rainbow Pool at Dusk," World War II Memorial, Courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Lt.(junior grade) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills, Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.
U.S. Navy Commander Howard Gilmore's wife and children, Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.