ST. PETERSBURG — Fifty-five years after Allied troops landed at Normandy and Audie Murphy single-handedly wiped out a German machine gun nest, one World War II veteran remained on active duty.
His name was Dr. Earl Fox, and he had served in the Navy and, later, as a flight surgeon in the Coast Guard. For 23 years in between, he practiced rheumatology and general medicine in St. Petersburg and served in the Naval Reserve. He was a quiet, determined man who loved medicine, and changed course several times in the way he practiced it.
Dr. Fox died Sept. 23 of cancer. A resident of St. Petersburg since the early 1950s, he had lived in the Lynchburg, Va., area for about a year.
Some unusual circumstances combined to make Dr. Fox the last World War II veteran on active duty, including age waivers twice issued by the Coast Guard. He learned of his unique status by the late 1990s as he neared retirement.
A colorful life almost ended before it began. The son of a lieutenant colonel, Earl Russell Fox was born in an Army hospital on Sept. 23, 1919, in Fort Eustis, Va. — and left for dead.
"They thought he was stillborn," said his son, Dr. Parham Fox, a Lynchburg radiologist. "They put him in a bin with the dirty laundry. The doctor was consoling my granddad."
The men returned to the laundry to verify the baby's gender, and found him crying.
Dr. Fox went on to the University of Richmond, where he served as class president and quarterback of the football team.
He was commissioned into the Navy and commanded a PT boat in the battles of Midway and Aleutians, in the same squadron as a young John F. Kennedy, Dr. Fox's family said.
Near the Aleutian Islands, Dr. Fox's crew had to abandon a grounded PT boat for rafts. Others discovered the abandoned boat and shipped his belongings in a box to his wife, the former Reba Booker.
What they did not know was that Eskimos had taken Dr. Fox in, and clothed and fed him until he could be reunited with his fellow seamen.
Once again, Dr. Fox had cheated death. He earned a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for his service.
He moved his family to St. Petersburg and interned at what is now Bayfront Medical Center. For the next 23 years, he practiced general medicine and rheumatology, an outgrowth of seeing elderly patients. He raced sailboats and was commodore of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
His career took a sharp turn at age 55, when Dr. Fox, a longtime member of the Naval Reserve, decided he wanted to become a flight surgeon in the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard liked the idea because Dr. Fox had both medical knowledge and an understanding of life at sea. Authorities allowed him to enter despite his age.
He jumped at one of his first training assignments: learn to fly a helicopter.
"He had all these hotshots from Vietnam who were teaching him helicopters," Parham Fox said. "All of a sudden he went from 55 years old to about 40 years old."
He was stationed at Elizabeth City, N.C.; Cape May, N.J.; Governors Island, N.Y.; and the Pentagon. Authorities considered his work on a disability review board so valuable that they once again granted Dr. Fox an exception to mandatory age limits.
By his late 70s, Dr. Fox learned that of the 16 million people who were in the armed forces during World War II, only he was still serving.
"He didn't talk about it much," his son said, adding that the distinction made his father both "modest and proud."
Nor, until the last decade or so of his life, did Dr. Fox have much to say about any of his wartime experiences.
"If you asked him, he would go on and tell you about himself," Parham Fox said. "But you had to ask him."
On Nov. 11, 1999, at a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, President Bill Clinton recognized Dr. Fox, then a captain and senior medical officer in Washington, D.C., as the last World War II veteran still on active duty. After the ceremony, family members were invited to the White House.
"My dad was not politically in Clinton's camp," said Parham Fox, who could not attend the ceremony. "But he said when the guy walked into the room, you just liked him immediately."
Many of his patients felt the same way about Dr. Fox, who taught his son to regard medicine as a public service. "He said the greatest good you can do is to serve others," his son said.
Dr. Fox died on his 93rd birthday.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.