WWI 'doughboys' dwindle to just 12

11/10/2006
BLADE STAFF AND WIRE
Coffey
Coffey

A Wood County veteran is among only a dozen surviving "doughboys," members of an increasingly fragile fraternity, relics of a world-changing war little remembered today.

Once J. Russell Coffey of North Baltimore was among 4.7 million strong: American farm boys, factory hands, and tradesmen itchy for adventure, all called by their country to fight in World War I, known as "the war to end all wars."

Now, when the 88th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I arrives tomorrow, there won't be enough surviving U.S. veterans of that defining conflict to fill a platoon.

Mr. Coffey, 108, was an Army private who never saw battle overseas. He enlisted in Columbus on Oct. 19, 1918.

"I remember going down and registering," Mr. Coffey told The Blade a year ago. "The recruitment man said, 'I don't think we need you.' Two weeks later, [it was just the opposite" and he was sent to basic training.

He was honorably discharged less than two months later on Dec. 12 - a month after peace was declared during the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

A year later, President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11 "Armistice Day" in recognition of the sacrifice of America's war veterans. After World War II the date was known as Veterans Day.

Mr. Coffey still resides at the Blakely Care Center in North Baltimore. At the beginning of 2006, an unofficial roster of known remaining American WW I vets listed only about 24 names. Eleven months later, those ranks have dwindled to a dozen, according to Scripps Howard News Service. Perhaps another dozen who joined the armed forces after Armistice Day and served in the immediate aftermath of the war are still alive as well.

"The torch is quickly passing," said retired Brig. Gen. Steve Berkheiser, executive director of the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, Mo.