Congress Says Goodbye To Its Last World War II Vets

Dec 9, 2014
Originally published on December 9, 2014 6:47 pm

The World War II era is about to officially draw to a close in the United States Congress. This comes after seven full decades during which there was always a veteran of that war in the legislative body.

The last two World War II veterans will leave office at the end of the current session of Congress. They are 88-year-old Michigan Democrat John Dingell and his longtime friend, 91-year-old Republican Ralph Hall of Texas. Dingell, who represents southeast Michigan, was elected in 1955 and is the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. He decided not to seek re-election this year. Hall, who represents the corner of Texas that borders Oklahoma and Arkansas, is not retiring of his own volition. He ran for re-election but was defeated in a primary runoff in the spring.

They are the last to depart out of hundreds who served in the military during that war and who went on to careers in the U.S. House and Senate.

From torpedo boats to the halls of the Capitol

The first of the World War II veterans to serve in Congress arrived even before the war was over.

George Andrews, a lawyer and former district attorney, had run for Congress before and lost. But in 1944, the death of the sitting congressman meant there was an open seat, so he declared his candidacy even though he was still an active member of the U.S. Navy serving in Pearl Harbor. He could run, but he couldn't just pack up and go home to campaign. Additionally, he was forbidden, as a member of the service, to publicly take political positions.

U.S. House historian Matthew Wasniewski says the solution was to have Andrews' wife, Elizabeth Bullock Andrews, campaign on his behalf. He won and was sworn into Congress in March of that year, putting him, as Wasniewski says, "at front end of that wave" of World War II vets serving in office at the U.S. Capitol.

Two years later, when the war was over, the first big wave of World War II veterans came to Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives class of 1946 included some 70 members who had served in the war. Among them was John F. Kennedy, whose exploits as the commander of a torpedo boat in the Pacific were already well-known to the public thanks to a 1944 article in The New Yorker, written by John Hersey.

It's a tale that would, years later, get blockbuster Hollywood treatment in a film called PT 109.

Other veterans elected in '46 included some of the biggest names in 20th century American politics, including Richard Nixon and future House Speaker Carl Albert. One election later, in 1948, another future president, Gerald R. Ford, entered Congress.

The number of veterans kept growing, and they moved into the top leadership positions. By the 1970s nearly 4 of 5 members of Congress were veterans, the majority from World War II. Today, only 1 in 5 is a vet.

House historian Wasniewski says the shared experience of World War II brought a moderating influence to their politics.

"The House has always been a partisan place; from the beginning it's been partisan," he says. But "that period from the late 1940s to early 1970s when that World War II group hits their peak [by the numbers] is in a lot of ways the exception to the rule when it comes to bipartisanship."

The final two: Reps. Dingell and Hall

Dingell was just 15 years old when he got an up-close glimpse of a pivotal moment in the war's history. In December 1941, he was working as a page in the U.S. House chamber when President Roosevelt delivered his "Day of Infamy" speech the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dingell enlisted when he turned 18 in the summer of 1944. He notes that he never saw combat and "never had a particularly romantic or exciting assignment."

Dingell eventually went to officer candidates school and says he would very likely have been in the wave of an American ground attack on Japan. It's an attack that never happened because of President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb. Dingell says that probably saved his life.

In an interview with NPR in his office at the Capitol, Dingell spoke of the success and importance of the GI Bill, which paved the way for millions of veterans to go to college, get a mortgage or get a loan to start a business.

Dingell says that Truman "thought it was a great thing. Republicans thought it was a great thing. Democrats thought it was a great thing. And the end result was a great achievement for the United States."

Both Dingell and Hall, a former Navy pilot, went to college on the GI Bill. Dingell decided not to run for re-election this year. Hall, who has served 17 terms, lost in the Republican primary in May. In December 2012, Hall became the oldest person ever to serve in the House.

They are old friends, and now the final of the hundreds of World War II veterans to serve in Congress. They are — as Dingell has described himself and Hall — the last leaves on the tree.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It was 73 years ago this week that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.

CORNISH: In the chamber that day was a 15-year-old U.S. House page, John Dingell Jr. Dingell eventually enlisted and would later win election to Congress himself, making him one of the hundreds of World War II veterans to serve in the House and Senate over a span of seven decades. But that era is now coming to a close as Dingell and Texas representative Ralph Hall prepare to leave office. They are the last of the World War II vets in Congress. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

(MUSIC)

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was 1944. The war wasn't even over yet when a Navy intelligence officer named George Andrews ran for Congress. It was an unusual campaign. The election was in Alabama but Andrews couldn't get there because he was on active duty at Pearl Harbor. And there was this, according to Matt Wasniewski, the official historian of the U.S. House.

MATT WASNIEWSKI: And the Navy wouldn't let him take political positions on any issues.

GONYEA: So his wife campaigned back home on Andrew's behalf.

WASNIEWSKI: And he wins the special election in March of '44, and he comes into the House.

GONYEA: So he's really at the front end of that wave for the next 70 years. Two years later when the war was over, the first big influx of World War II veterans came to Congress. The class of 1946 included some 70 members who'd served in the war. Among them, John F. Kennedy whose exploits as the commander of a torpedo boat in the Pacific were already well-known to the public. It's a tale that would, years later, get blockbuster Hollywood treatment in a film starring Cliff Robertson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLIFF ROBERTSON: It's a whopping adventure story of courage. The young man I play is a fellow from Boston. His name - Lieutenant John F. Kennedy. His boat - PT 109.

GONYEA: Other veterans elected in '46 included some of the biggest names in 20th century American politics - Richard Nixon, future House Speaker Carl Albert. In 1948, Gerald R. Ford, another future president, entered the Congress. The wave of veterans kept growing. By the 1970s, nearly 4 of 5 members of Congress were veterans, the majority from World War II. Today? Only 1 in 5 are veterans. House historian Wasniewski says the shared experience of World War II brought something else.

WASNIEWSKI: That war service had, I think, a very real kind of moderating influence on their politics. The House has always been a partisan place. From the beginning, it's been partisan. And that period from the late 1940s into the early 1970s when the World War II group hits its peak is in a lot of ways the exception to the rule in terms of bipartisanship.

GONYEA: Michigan Democrat John Dingell enlisted in 1944. He's 88 now. You can hear his age in his voice. He describes himself as a former buck private who has no heroic war stories.

CONGRESSMAN JOHN DINGELL: I never had any particularly romantic or exciting assignments.

GONYEA: Dingell speaks of the success of the G.I. Bill, which paved the way for millions of veterans to go to college or get a mortgage or a loan to start a business.

DINGELL: Truman thought it was a great thing. Republicans thought it was a great thing. The Democrats thought it was a great thing.

GONYEA: Both Dingell and Texas Congressman Ralph Hall, who is 91 years old, went to college on the G.I. Bill. Dingell decided not to run for reelection this year. Hall, a former Navy pilot, ran and lost in the Republican primary this past spring. They are old friends. They are the last of the hundreds of World War II veterans to serve in Congress. They are, as Dingell has described himself and Hall, the last leaves on the tree. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.