George LaRoche stood in the large banquet hall and began the roll call from a list of 116 veterans who long ago agreed to gather each year until only one survived.
One by one he called out their names, knowing full well no one would be there to answer. Amid the silence, the small, tabletop American flags in honor of each man were laid down. Only one flag remained upright.
LaRoche, the 85-year-old Navy veteran who served in Korea and later around the globe during the Cold War, is the last surviving member of the VFW’s Last Man’s Club in Faribault — a group of men who served in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. It was up to him alone to pay tribute to his military brothers at the group’s annual meeting on Aug. 14 — the anniversary of V-J Day — and call an end to the club that was established in 1957.
A flag flew in honor of the club’s members for much of October at the local American Legion, where they met after the VFW folded.
“It’s over,” LaRoche said in an interview.
A few weeks before the last meeting, LaRoche made a pact with William Boosalis, the only other surviving member of the club. “I told Bill that we should just end it with the two of us,” LaRoche said. But Boosalis, a 95-year-old World War II Navy veteran, died four days before the meeting.
Scanning the roll call list, LaRoche can easily recall each man’s face and their stories. “I can’t remember what the hell time I got up this morning,” he said. “But I can remember all of them.”
They gathered each year for the camaraderie, he said. “It was just a good time,” he said. “We had a common bond. We never talked about war. Everybody knew what everybody else had done.”
Most fought in some of the biggest battles. “We even had a guy [who] was in the Spanish-American War with Teddy Roosevelt,” LaRoche said. “He didn’t die until 1977. He outlived a lot of the younger ones.”
The first member died on the club’s second anniversary in 1958. “Then damn near every year after, somebody died — sometimes three or four,” LaRoche said.
The annual meetings paid tribute to each of them. After roll call, the surviving members stood at attention, facing west for 30 seconds of silence before a bugle sounded taps.
This year, LaRoche enlisted Vietnam War veteran Jim Douda and his electronic bugle to help put the Last Man’s Club to rest.
“I owed it to him,” said Douda of nearby Dundas. “Military always backs up military.”
He laid each flag down as LaRoche called out the names and then placed the bugle to his lips. He pressed a button and the mournful sound of taps filled the room. LaRoche sat there in the empty room, absorbing the finality and his emotions. “That’s it,” he said. He packed up the memorabilia and gave it to the Rice County Historical Society. “I’m glad it will be kept and not get lost in someone’s basement or garage,” LaRoche said.
Among the boxes were an unopened bottle of cognac from France and an unopened bottle of blended Scots whisky from the Philippines. “The last man was supposed to drink it, and I’m a guy who went through alcohol treatment,” said LaRoche, who often raised a glass of root beer during the club’s toasts to its deceased members.
Next year, he’ll likely pause on Aug. 14. “I’ll probably get the list out and sit here and say the names to myself,” he said. “I feel honored and privileged to be a member of that organization with those guys. That’s history, man. That’s world history, us guys.”