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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 27, 2003

Teen helps Pearl Harbor survivor return to Hawai'i

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

When Pearl Harbor survivor Vince Amato visited Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Ind., to share his recollections of Dec. 7, 1941, with students in Ashley Gillam's American Experience class, the World War II vet mentioned that he hadn't returned to Pearl Harbor in the six decades since.

Seventy-nine-year-old Vince Amato of Indiana looks out over the rusted hulk of the USS Utah during his first visit back to Pearl Harbor since he survived the attack on Dec. 7, 1941. With him is Ashley Gillam, 17, who started a fund-raiser to bring Amato back to Hawai'i as a thank you for sharing his story with her Lafayette, Ind., high school class.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Gillam's teacher later suggested that the class show its gratitude by sending Amato a thank you letter.

"I thought, 'Why write a thank you letter?' " said Gillam, 17. " 'Why not have a fund-raiser and send him back?' "

Gillam began making phone calls to veterans service organizations and anyone else who would listen. After the Indianapolis Journal and Courier ran a story about Gillam's phone campaign, the history buff raised $6,000 in four days.

Meanwhile, an anonymous Indianapolis businessman called to say he would pay for Amato's room at the Waikiki Marriott. American Trans-Air Inc. donated round-trip airline tickets for Amato and his daughter, Cathy Lynn Upton.

On Sunday, Amato and his daughter arrived in Honolulu. And, since there was enough money left over to pay for it, Gillam came along.

Yesterday, the three were given a tour of Pearl Harbor aboard the Admiral's Barge with Rear Adm. Robert Conway, Commander, Navy Region Hawaii. After expressing his appreciation to the admiral, Amato put his arm around Gillam.

"This is the young lady who created this for me," he said. "I couldn't believe someone would do this for an old salt like me. But I'm glad she did."

Amato was an 18-year-old sailor aboard the USS Maryland the morning the bombs began to drop and Pearl Harbor became frozen in history.

"I had just been relieved from my job in the boiler room," Amato said. "I went up to the shower room and while I was there this friend wanted me to give him some change. That's when we heard the bombs go off.

"We looked out the porthole and we could see the bombs going off over Ford Island. The planes were coming in at an angle, and after they hit Ford Island they would zoom over the ships."

Japanese planes dropped torpedoes that sank the USS Oklahoma. Because of the Oklahoma's position, torpedoes were unable to hit the Maryland.

"It it wasn't for the Oklahoma, I wouldn't be here today talking," Amato said. "The Maryland would have taken them (torpedoes), and they'd be saying prayers over us. It just didn't happen to be my day to die."

Like others who survived that morning, Amato has painful memories of the attack. That is part of the reason he had never returned. At times he has wondered why he lived when so many others died.

When he was informed that Gillam had raised the money for him to return to Hawai'i, Amato said he thought it was a joke. It wasn't until days later when the Indianapolis newspaper called that he realized it was for real. He said he finally decided that returning would bring him closure.

Upton says she was stunned when her father accepted. Although he had spoken of his Pearl Harbor experience often when she was growing up, she said he never considered returning to Ford Island.

"I've tried for years to get him to come back, and I just couldn't do it," she said. "I couldn't even get him to go see the movie 'Pearl Harbor.' So, I'm just speechless."

Amato said it was sad to see the battle scene again. But he said he was grateful for having had the opportunity.

Gillam's hometown newspaper has asked her to write an article about her Hawai'i experience after she returns on April 2. Amato and Gillam will return to Jefferson High with an American flag that flew over the Arizona Memorial on the day of their visit and a copy of "A Day of Infamy" signed by numerous Pearl Harbor survivors.

"At first my mom didn't want me to come," Gillam said. "But, she finally gave in after my dad told her I'm never going to get the chance again to go to Pearl Harbor with a survivor.

"I feel like a celebrity. We're having a press conference when we get back."