Pearl survivors keep dwindling
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
Their mission and motto are "Remember Pearl Harbor" and "Keep America Alert."
But as planning for the 65th observance of the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack gets under way, there are fewer and fewer survivors to stand watch.
Mal Middlesworth, president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, estimated there were between 70,000 and 120,000 military personnel on O'ahu at the time of the attack.
At its peak, the survivor organization counted 15,000 survivors among its ranks, according to a founding member.
That membership has dwindled to fewer than 5,000 nationally, Middlesworth said. The California man, at 83, is among the youngest of survivors. Many more are in their 90s.
"We're losing so many each month," said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Sterling R. Cale, 84, who as a pharmacist mate pulled wounded from the oily waters of Pearl Harbor and was in charge of a burial detail on the stricken battleship USS Arizona.
The Halawa man now volunteers his time three days a week at the memorial.
"Since the first of the year, I think we've lost four or five (survivors here) already," he said.
Facing that reality, survivors are at a crossroads: how to carry on the message and mission when they are gone.
In response, sons and daughters of the veterans are picking up the torch in their own retirement years, and memorials such as the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor have technology on their side.
Hundreds of oral histories have been recorded at the historical landmark by the National Park Service, which hopes to make them available in interactive video format at a new visitor center that's planned.
Visitors already may pay $5 for MP3 players and hear survivor stories. About six survivors still volunteer at the memorial on a regular basis, talking to visitors, posing for photos and signing autographs, Cale said.
Arizona memorial historian Daniel Martinez said he's seen something of a generational shift from the days of survivors bringing their children to Pearl Harbor.
"I'm pretty close to the Pearl Harbor survivors and veterans," Martinez said, "and I'm seeing more of the sons and daughters who have lost their parents who were in World War II are coming here because it was so important to their parents."
Attendance at O'ahu's most visited attraction was 1.44 million in 2001 and 1.56 million in 2005.
Increased cruise ship visitation has filled some of the void created by the loss of survivors making the trek, and "cruise ship crush" now brings in more than 1,000 park visitors at a time.
With deaths and fading health, Pearl Harbor survivors and other World War II veterans now make up far less of the total visitor count.
"I think they (sons and daughters) feel it's a sense of duty, a sense of connecting with the World War II experience, and especially, if it was Pearl Harbor (service), they want to see where Dad was," Martinez said. "Some of them never talked about it — the (children) just knew they were there, and they want to get a sense of the place."
These days, more than before, Martinez hears visitors say, "Hey, my dad was on a ship here. ... Do you have any information on that? Can I look up his ship?"
For the 65th anniversary, seating for 3,000 is planned. The park service and Navy are evaluating whether to have the joint observance on the visitor center's back lawn or on Ford Island.
So far, about 350 survivors and 650 family members have indicated they are coming from the Mainland, but the total is expected to increase. The group also will hold its national convention here.
The bookstore at the visitor center has almost doubled its titles on World War II, the Pacific war and Pearl Harbor to meet demand.
Middlesworth, who was an 18-year-old and part of a Marine detachment on the USS San Francisco on Dec. 7, 1941, said a lot of Pearl Harbor Survivors Association chapters across the country are in limbo with the loss of survivors, and many may have to turn in their charters.
"We have a requirement that you have to have seven (survivors) to have a chapter," he said. "In recent years, wives, widows, or sons or daughters have been taking over some of the positions."
The survivors have a national scholarship program and a speaker's bureau that visits schools and civic organizations to emphasize the need to remember Pearl Harbor and keep America alert, something that Middlesworth said history books don't adequately cover.
"The coverage in history books is about a maximum of a half-page," he said, "and most of that half-page is taken up with a picture of the Arizona."
Organizations like the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors have their national conventions at the same time as the survivors group, Middlesworth said. The two groups work closely together, and the sons and daughters assist in conveying the Pearl Harbor story to school students.
According to bylaws, the sons and daughters organization eventually may take over some functions of the survivors group, he said.
Many of those taking up the Pearl Harbor cause are doing so after their own children are grown and they have more time, and many are Vietnam veterans, officials said.
In the meantime, veterans like Cale talk with Arizona memorial visitors about their service nearly 65 years ago when America was drawn into the costliest war in human history on a sleepy Sunday morning in Hawai'i.
Cale, his head of wispy white hair filled with a lifetime's worth of war stories, remembers the attack and racing over toward the Oklahoma in a barge when the battleship overturned.
He pulled out about 47 service members with burns and other wounds from waters that were on fire from the oil.
He remembers being on burial detail on the Arizona, and being overwhelmed at the sight of ashes floating past that he knew were all that was left of a crew member.
He saw duty on Guadalcanal, in Korea, and in Vietnam and Laos.
The memories of Dec. 7, 1941, are usually only vivid on the anniversary of the attack, he said.
"I've been in so many wars and seen so many casualties, it isn't real vivid until we have the Dec. 7 ceremony," the retired command sergeant major said. "The (aircraft) missing man formation, vroom! They dive right over the ceremony and — oh, boy — a shiver goes down my spine and I find myself picking up bodies again."
Shortly after Cale gave that account, Kelly Fox, a 43-year-old tourist from Dallas, respectfully asked him if she could get a photo.
When he accommodated her request, she told him: "It's a privilege. Thank you."
"He's a person. It's different than looking at a ship," Fox said. "I was just thankful he's here to continue to remind us of the men that died and the survivors and the sacrifices he made for the country."
Reach William Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org.