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Last man standing

As we lose World War II veterans, will we learn the lessons their war can teach us?


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On the second day out of San Francisco, Cleatus Lebow almost got into a fistfight. Some tough guys from another division on the ship kept picking on Cleatus’ friend, Clarence Hershberger. A missing tooth had left a wide gap in Clarence’s smile, and there were a couple of knuckleheads who just wouldn’t leave him alone.

It was July 18, 1945. Two days earlier, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis had sailed from Hunter’s Point, Calif., on the most highly classified Allied naval mission of World War II. Before Indy got underway, her crew noticed lots of strange goings-on at the pier: A crane had hoisted aboard a strangely marked crate. The crate was then immediately lashed down in the hangar bay and put under 24-hour Marine guard. Finally, two mysterious passengers walked up the brow, a major and a captain. They claimed to be Army artillery officers hitching a ride to Tinian Island, but some Indianapolis officers had their doubts about that.

Cleatus Lebow, 21, of Abernathy, Texas, was aware of this intrigue, but it was far above his paygrade. He was more concerned about his friend Clarence. Cleatus told the knuckleheads that if they didn’t leave Clarence alone, he was going to serve them each a knuckle sandwich.

After that, Cleatus resumed his usual habit of telling Clarence about Jesus.

That was the thing about Cleatus Lebow: He just wouldn’t stop talking about his Savior.

These days, Cleatus isn’t talking about Jesus anymore, though. Instead, he’s talking to Him.

Cleatus passed away in Amarillo, Texas, on Sept. 29, 2022. He was 98 years old, one of the last two living survivors of USS Indianapolis, the flagship of the World War II Pacific fleet.

I was honored to talk with Cleatus while researching a book about Indianapolis, the ship that delivered to Tinian the fissionable innards of the Hiroshima bomb and then, four days later, was sunk dead-center of the Philippine Sea.

Just before the sinking, Cleatus—a slim and handsome square-jawed Texan from a big, churchgoing ­family—led Clarence Hershberger to Christ. Hours later, two Japanese torpedoes struck the ship. A geyser of seawater exploded up through the main deck, bearing Clarence aloft, high into the midnight sky. Clarence, who would survive the sinking, later called that geyser his “baptism.”

Like Cleatus, Clarence is gone now, along with 315 of Indy’s 316 survivors. That leaves Harold Bray Sr., 95, the last man standing. Harold, whose photo appears on p. 51, is a retired police officer in Benicia, Calif. He’s also part of a rapidly shrinking band of very special Americans: our World War II veterans. This month, as we observe Veterans Day, it’s sobering to realize that just 1 percent of the 16 million American heroes who fought are still living—and that they’re dying at a rate of 180 a day.

And we are not losing only our oldest veterans but also our youngest. In this issue, World Journalism Institute grad Grace Snell examines the epidemic of ­suicide among veterans of our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—talking with soldiers who’ve watched too many brothers die.

In my work, I’ve conducted scores of interviews with veterans young and old. I can tell you they all have at least one desire in common: that when war comes again, America does not repeat her past mistakes.

As strategists contemplate a potential Pacific war with China, William Toti, a retired Navy captain, asks a key question in our cover story: What can we learn from the end of the last Pacific war about leadership—particularly the sin of pride?

It’s a case study that reflects Proverbs 16:18. Pride goes before destruction. Sometimes, sadly, it’s not our own.

—WORLD has updated this column to correct the named percentage of U.S. WWII veterans who are still living.


Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.

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