The three wooden cases hang in a row along the wall.
Behind the glass covering rests a bottle of liquor flanked by shelves of shotglasses, each labeled with a name.
Printed across the top of each cabinet at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Main Street in Cortland are the words “Last Man’s Club.”
The center case and its bottle of Schenley Reserve whiskey is for a group of World War II veterans. It had 52 members; two remain.
The bottles — accompanied by another group of World War II vets on the left and one for Korean and Vietnam the right — represent a tontine, or pact made by groups of VFW members decades ago. The idea is that the last surviving member of each group would drink a toast to his comrades.
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
This Last Man’s Club at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Cortland started with 52 members, all World War II veterans. Just two remain. The last one will get this 60-year-old bottle of whiskey.
Traditionally the shotglasses are left facing up until the owner dies. While all of the shotglasses are upside down in the cases, some of the members are still alive, VFW members said. The seal on the bottle in the second World War II tontine case is broken, but VFW members aren’t sure whether that means all of the members have died.
“Most of these guys are just like me,” said Murray “Stub” Aldrich, a member of the club, after looking over the display in the VFW hall. “They fought the enemy.”
More than 3,080 men from Cortland County served in World War II, reports the Cortland County Historical Society. Few remain, probably fewer than 100, according to Veterans Administration and Census data. Frank King, a World War II veteran who was not in the first World War II Last Man’s Club, died a few weeks ago, VFW members said.
Time did what a war could not. Ninety-seven percent of all World War II veterans have died, federal data show. And in the intervening decades — seven of them — the VFW post has lost track of some, buried others. One member of the tontine moved out of state and mail to him has been returned. Nobody’s quite sure who remains.
Only two confirmed survivors remain: Aldrich and Francis “Fritz” Mullen. They still live in the homes they occupied when the club formed.
Home from a war
Mullen, 94, served as a top turret gunner on B-24 Liberator bombers in missions over Europe. He flew 32 missions between April and October 1944.
After the war, he returned to the family business, Mullen Office Outfitters at 28 Main St. in Cortland. Mullen announced last week that the business is closing after 104 years.
Aldrich, 91, enlisted in the Navy two weeks before his 17th birthday and served from 1943 to 1946, seeing action in the South Pacific. Aldrich was a signalman and quartermaster working communications and navigation aboard the USS Oglala, a repair vessel. He later served aboard a similar vessel, the USS Rigal. After the war, he served with the Navy Reserve until 1958.
Mostly, he was a firefighter — 42 years with the Cortland Fire Department, leaving on disability about 1987.
Mullen recalls the VFW was especially popular after the war. “A lot of the fellas were back from the war,” he said. “But as time went on, we had jobs and family responsibilities.”
The VFW was one of the first places in the city with a television set. Veterans gathered to see old friends and make new ones, to buy reasonably priced drinks and play the slot machines.
“We were settling down after the service,” he said. “The economy of Cortland was doing well with all the factories. It was a great time.”
Aldrich does not recall details about the creation of the Last Man’s Club, but believed it was started after the VFW hall was moved from the second floor of a Main Street building next to Mullen’s store south to its current location at 76 Main St. The idea came from earlier vets.
“I think it came from the World War I guys,” he said. “The last one standing gets the bottle.”
The cases are prominently displayed, but largely ignored, Aldrich said. “It’s just something we did.”
In 1955 when the case was filled, they were young men, looking to get on with a life that a world war had forced them to put on hold. They were raising families, establishing careers, creating businesses and building a post-war world — and a postwar Cortland.
Aldrich knew them all well.
And life goes on
Donald Beard went on to run a funeral home business.
Morris Fitts was a lawyer. Joseph Galante was a city police officer.
Richard Raber and Ray Spellman were paid firefighters with Aldrich; George Treacy helped out as a volunteer firefighter.
John Linehan headed the city Public Safety Department, maintaining traffic and street lights.
Harvey Best worked at the Cortland Post Office.
Aldrich came to the VFW hall nearly every day. He watched as the kids came along, and the grandkids. The careers peaked and retirements arrived. Some left; some died. And the ranks of the Last Man’s Club dwindled.
Even Aldrich doesn’t come as often. He and his second wife, Marietta, now spend half the year in Scottsdale, Arizona, and he only gets back to the hall a couple of times a year.
Mullen said he remains a VFW member, but has not been to events in about 30 years. He said he had forgotten about the Last Man’s Club until this week.
“I remember that they had it, but I don’t remember the details,” he said. “I never gave it a thought.”
The bottle of Schenley Reserve whiskey remains in the case. Aldrich said he expects that he probably would stop by the VFW hall to recognize the end of the club if he were the last man standing.
“I wouldn’t drink it,” he said.
To the Memory of a Departed Comrade
A note tucked beside the bottle in the display case for the Cortland Veterans of Foreign War post’s original World War II Last Man’s Club contained this prayer:
“By the will of the Almighty God, the time comes for all of us when our work here on earth is finished and the spirit departs to the realm of everlasting peace.
In this hour of sorrow and trial, let us meditate on the good works performed by our departed comrade when he was one among us.
We know when disaster threatens our country, he did bear arms in the defense of democratic form of government and our institutions; and because of his honorable service rendered to his country in the time of war, his comrades that are left, and the generations to follow, will, by the Grace of Almighty God, enjoy the right to worship, to work, and to live as they choose, within the laws of our fair land.
We pray the good Lord to grant his eternal rest and peace which he so justly earned and because of these good works, we will cherish HIS memory for all time: to the last man.
By the numbers
• Nearly 16 million people served during World War II. Of those, perhaps 500,000 remain, according to the Veterans Administration. That’s one in 32 still living.
• Records of Cortland County’s living World War II veterans are hard to come by, but federal data suggest fewer than 100 of the 3,080 remain alive.
• About 3,000 veterans, of all periods of service, live in Cortland County, according to the Veterans Administration.