65 years later, Pearl Harbor survivors still do their duty
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
History will always remember them as young men whose innocence died on a Sunday morning amid the roar of attacking divebombers.
They were the first of their generation to feel the sucker punch of a torpedo on a ship's hull. The first to raise arms against the Japanese attackers. The first to grieve for fallen shipmates at Pearl Harbor, a place many Americans had never heard of before Dec. 7, 1941.
But history will recall something else. In surviving, they shouldered a duty to remember.
They will honor that obligation next week, just as they have for decades, but with a difference this time that none can ignore.
For many, the 65th anniversary of the attack will likely be their last hurrah.
An estimated 350 to 400 survivors men now in their 80s and 90s will attend the ceremony on the shore of Pearl Harbor. They are part of a larger group of 1,800 that includes family members.
When they gathered five years ago for the 60th anniversary an event many at the time also called the last great reunion more than 750 survivors came.
"There is a bit of melancholy to this one," said Mal Middlesworth, national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. "We will probably not see a whole lot of people here again."
The national group has held a reunion in Hawai'i every five years since 1964.
"I doubt if we will ever be back as a group again," Middlesworth said. "It's not a question of age. It's a question of their ability to get around and to travel. It's too difficult now."
Another 2,000 people invited guests and the public are expected to attend, swelling the annual gathering to nearly 4,000 people. That large a crowd would have overwhelmed the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center, the site of many previous ceremonies, so the Navy will allow the gathering to take place on Kilo Pier, directly across from the USS Arizona Memorial.
BRINGING WHOLE FAMILIES
More families are coming than ever before, with three and four generations traveling for the event, Middlesworth said.
"They are bringing their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren," he said. "One man who is bringing 30 people has shown them videos on Pearl Harbor and before they get on a plane, they have to pass a test."
Daniel Martinez, the National Park Service historian at the Arizona Memorial, said the decision by the national group to not come back to Hawai'i "speaks volumes." And Martinez, who has been at the memorial since 1985, finds that uncomfortable to think about.
"It's a fading of a generation," he said. "They are embracing their mortality."
He has watched the survivors age, watched them go from buddies who traveled to Hawai'i with their wives for golf, dinners and the anniversary, to men in the twilight of their lives. The 60th anniversary started a trend of more family participation among survivors that extends to visits year-round, Martinez said.
"I strongly suspect that long after the survivors can no longer come to Hawai'i there will be family members who will come," he said. "What we are talking about is legacy. This is where we depart from the physical memory of so many survivors and start moving into the legacy of Pearl Harbor. It is going to be passed on to the next generation."
SLEW OF SPECIAL EVENTS
Special events will mark the anniversary, including panel discussions of the attack by scholars, authors and survivors, the unveiling of a new scale model of the USS Arizona and the grand opening of the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island. Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw will be the keynote speaker at the Kilo Pier ceremony.
Groundbreaking is also scheduled Dec. 7 for the USS Oklahoma Memorial, which will also be on Ford Island. The battleship capsized about 12 minutes after it was hit by a Japanese torpedo, resulting in the deaths of 429 sailors and Marines. The loss of life was second only to that aboard the USS Arizona.
About $250,000 has been raised for the memorial, but $500,000 is still needed, said Paul Goodyear, an 88-year-old Oklahoma survivor who has championed the effort to create a memorial for several years.
The groundbreaking comes amid a tough year for Goodyear's former shipmates. The survivors held a reunion in April, but 11 of them have died since then, he said.
"I don't think hardly any of us will be back in five years," said Goodyear, who lives in Casa Grande, Ariz., and will travel to Hawai'i for the ceremony.
Goodyear estimates 105 Oklahoma survivors are left and said they, and their families, desperately want a memorial built soon.
"I'm pretty sure it is going to be an emotional time for everybody," he said. "We feel so strongly that the Arizona has just overshadowed and grabbed all the attention from these kids. Those kids were absolutely forgotten."
FOR HER GRANDFATHER
Lisa Ridge, a schoolteacher from Sullivan, Ind., will attend the ceremony to honor her grandfather, Petty Officer Paul Nash, a fire controlman first class aboard the Oklahoma. Goodyear asked her to speak on behalf of the Oklahoma families.
"For me, it is for my grandmother and my mother, for personal reasons, to bring some closure for them," Ridge said. "My mother passed away in 2001 but my grandmother is still living. She is in a nursing home. She has Alzheimer's and doesn't know any of us anymore. I want to do this for them."
None of her family has ever visited Pearl Harbor or the Arizona Memorial.
"It was too emotionally difficult, I think," she said.
And despite her love of history, Ridge never felt the tug to visit this painful place.
"I was never really drawn out there until now," she said. "Now I feel I really need to go."
MEN OF USS ARIZONA
Among the survivors planning to attend will be 10 men who escaped the inferno that was the stricken USS Arizona, flagship image of the battle lost.
Young men no more, they are traveling with a much larger contingent of 180 family members registered with the USS Arizona Reunion Association.
Their ranks have thinned since the 60th anniversary, when 22 survivors made the trip, said Ruth Campbell, reunion coordinator. Her group is shrinking, too, down 11 men in the last two years. Nationwide, she estimates there are about 40 survivors of the Arizona who are still alive.
"We don't have that many," she said. "And a lot are ill, too."
They plan to visit the memorial on their first full day here.
A band will greet them at the visitors center entrance and the walkway will be lined with 100 saluting sailors and Marines.
But the purpose of the visit is one of respect, of an obligation willingly accepted a lifetime earlier.
After their arrival, they will board the shuttle boat and motor out to the gleaming white memorial. It is the only real destination on the trip.
"It's very important for them to come to the memorial again," Campbell said. "They never know if it will be their last time or not."
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Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.