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Veterans Day: Remembering military heroes

(CNN) -- Every November 11, the United States pauses for a day of parades, prayers and ceremonies to honor its citizens who have served in the military, with a special remembrance for those who fought and died on the battlefields of war.

Gallery: Veterans Day photographs 

Veterans Day in the United States traces its roots to World War I. More than 116,000 U.S. military personnel died in the war that ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, a day that became known as Armistice Day.

Three years later, in 1921, the remains of an unidentified World War I soldier were buried at Arlington National Cemetery on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River and Washington. Similar ceremonies previously had been held in England and France.

Congress passed a resolution in 1926 officially naming Armistice Day. Another resolution in 1938 made it a national holiday.

A year later, World War II began. The American war dead would total more than 405,000.

After World War II came the Korean War, and another 54,000 Americans were killed in action.

On November 11, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day, to honor the men and women who served the United States in combat.

In 1968, Congress acted to move Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October but returned it to November 11 in 1978.

The Tomb of the Unknowns holds the remains of unidentified U.S. dead from three wars. Remains of servicemen from World War II and Korea were added on Memorial Day 1958. Added in 1984 were remains from the Vietnam War in which 59,000 Americans died. But those remains were identified, removed and returned to the soldier's family.

And what of those whose war gave rise to Veterans Day?

When World War I ended more than 80 years ago, there were more than 4.7 million veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs says that as of September 2001, there were 2,212 living World War I veterans, down from 2,416 in October 2000, 3,400 in July 1999 and 4,800 a year earlier.

But Muriel Sue Parkhurst, executive director of the Veterans of World War I of the USA Inc., who has devoted 27 years to tracking World War I veterans, said the actual number is likely much smaller.

She noted that the VA uses death notices to update its count and that the ranks of living Americans who fought in "the war to end all wars" probably number fewer than 600. Parkhurst said they range in age from 97 to 116. The average, she said, is about 100.

The VA also lists the number of living American veterans from other wars as follows (as of May 2001):

*World War II: 5,541,378

*Korean War: 3,913,749

*Vietnam War: 8,300,106

*Persian Gulf War: 1,753,530

In total, through U.S. wars (as of May 2001):

*42,348,460 Americans have served in combat

*650,954 died in battle

*13,853 other deaths in service (in theater)

*229,661 other deaths in service (nontheater)

*1,431,290 nonmortal injuries

*19,421,266 living war veterans

*25,497,691 living ex-service members

Perhaps the best-known poem to emerge from World War I was "In Flanders Fields," written by John McCrae, a Canadian poet who was a medical officer in the Boer War and World War I.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours and hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


• Department of Veterans Affairs

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