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By STEPHANIE HAYES, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2008
SUN CITY CENTER -- Drills, military instruction and mopping up after sick cadets in a dormitory was the most action Harry Landis ever saw.
He enlisted in the Army in October 1918 because the government was drafting 18-year-olds like him. A month later, World War I was over.
But as the years passed, he stayed healthy. Eventually, he was a centenarian, and most of his fellow veterans had died. People fussed. Reporters called. Fan mail arrived.
Mr. Landis was now part of an elite few around the globe -- veterans who, alive in a new millennium, could say they survived the first world war.
He shrugged it off.
"People get all excited about it, but it doesn't amount to a damn," he told the St. Petersburg Times in April.
Mr. Landis, the second-to-last known U.S. World War I veteran, developed a fever about four weeks ago, his caretaker said. He died Monday Feb. 4, 2008 in Sun City Center. He was 108.
About 4.7-million Americans served during World War I. There's no comprehensive list of survivors, but last year the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs listed three known veterans: Landis; Frank Buckles, 107, of West Virginia.; and J. Russell Coffey of Ohio.
Mr. Coffey, who was the oldest known American survivor, died in December at age 109. He lived in a nursing home where aides helped him sign autographs.
Buckles is still alive, according to the VA. He lied about his age to enlist at age 16. He didn't see action but made it to France.
The VA tried to reach out and find other survivors last year, said Jim Benson, VA spokesman. There were a few leads, but nothing panned out.
"I think it's amazing for us to realize that you have this population of individuals who served during the first great war, and at that time, it was the war to end all wars," Benson said. "Soon, we will no longer have a living contact. It will all be from the histories left behind."
Spotty record keeping makes it difficult to know exactly how many World War I veterans remain alive in some other countries. The last known German veteran died earlier this year, as did France's second-to-last survivor. Only one Canadian veteran of the war is thought to still be alive.
Mr. Landis was born on Dec. 12, 1899, in Marion County, Mo. He lived through a drought and hard times on his family's farm and attended Missouri's Central Methodist University.
Years after his military service, he claimed, he never got his first paycheck -- $15.
"He just took it as a loss," said his caretaker, Donna Riley. "Apparently, he figured his sergeant or whoever was over him at the time just pocketed it."
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he tried to join the fight. But at age 42, he said, he was rejected. "They wanted the boys," Mr. Landis told the Times. "They didn't want the old men."
Although both of his parents died in their 70s, Mr. Landis stayed healthy his whole life. Until his recent illness, eye drops were his only medicine. He just needed help buttoning his shirts.
Caring for his wife, Eleanor Landis, sustained him.
When he met her in the 1970s, both were widowed. They were married for more than 30 years. Eleanor, now 100, suffers from dementia.
Every day, they ate meals together. Mr. Landis loved to hold his wife's hand. He would fetch her glasses or her blanket when she was chilly.
When he thought she needed to walk, he would let her caretakers know. And every night in bed, he'd give her a massage, even though his own hands hurt from arthritis.
"You couldn't ask for any better," Mrs. Landis said Wednesday. To remember him, she looks at a picture in her kitchen of her and Mr. Landis in front of a Christmas tree.
Mr. Landis was a great storyteller and loved to entertain his friends and caretakers. He was low key, said Riley, 32. But if he liked you, he'd open up.
With Riley, he shared stories of his boyhood in Missouri. There, he was in charge of heating his one-room schoolhouse. He taught two young girls how to wrap themselves tight in a blanket so they wouldn't complain about the cold.
"I never paid attention to history until Harry," said Riley, who has been looking after the couple for five years. "Hearing these stories from him was a lot better than out of a textbook."
Whenever Mr. Landis made the papers, Riley would save the clippings to show him.
"He didn't think it was a big deal, him being a World War I survivor," Riley said. "But when I would tell him, 'You're in the paper again,' you could tell he liked it."
Times staff writers Jessica Vander Velde and Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report, which used information from Times files. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.
Harry Landis will be cremated, and at his wish, there will be no service.
[Last modified February 7, 2008, 00:22:01]