Retiring Lautenberg is Senate’s Only Remaining World War II Veteran

Photograph by Mel Evans/AP Photo

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, stands with his wife Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, as he waves to a gathering on Feb. 15, 2013, in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., where he announced plans to retire at the end of his current term.

New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg’s decision not to seek re-election in 2014 almost assuredly will close an era in the U.S. Senate.

With Lautenberg’s departure, the chamber won’t have any World War II veterans, barring the election in next year’s races of someone else who served in the conflict that ended in 1945.

“His service in World War II is a testament to his character and deep commitment to public service,” President Barack Obama said in a statement praising Lautenberg, 89, who announced yesterday his decision to step down.

The House has two World War II veterans — Michigan Democrat John Dingell, 86, who was elected in 1955 and is the longest-serving House member in history, and Texas Republican Ralph Hall, elected in 1980 and who at 89 is the oldest House member in history.

Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat and a Congressional Medal of Honor winner for his World War II service, died in December at age 88 after almost 50 years in the Senate. His Hawaii colleague and fellow wartime vet, Daniel K. Akaka,  also 88, retired from the chamber a few weeks later.

The Senate Historical Office lists 115 senators known to have served in the military during World War II. They include Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a Massachusetts Republican who resigned his seat in February 1944 to serve in the Army.

“It seems to me this resignation is simply the final and conclusive demonstration of a superb character and an incorrigible courage,” said Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, according to the Congressional Record.

“I wish him well. I hope one day he may return again to his desk here,” Vandenberg said.

Lodge did. He won the state’s other Senate seat in the 1946 election. He then was defeated in 1952 by another vet, John F. Kennedy. And when Kennedy, famed for his service on PT 109 in the Pacific, won the presidency in 1960, the Republican ticket he defeated featured Lodge as the vice presidential candidate.

The last president who fought in World War II was George H.W. Bush,  a naval aviator who flew almost 60 combat missions.

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