Pearl Harbor survivors return for final reunion

For decades after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, survivors returned to retell their stories and recite their mantra: “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

Now, the people who survived the surprise attack that killed more than 2,400 people and led to America’s entry into World War II are in their 80s or older. Dying or too frail to travel, they say this week’s reunion will be their last official gathering at the sacred site.

“We’re getting to be fewer and fewer in numbers,” said Lee Soucy, 87, of Plainview, Texas. Soucy recalled treating injured sailors who jumped from flaming ships during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He was in Hawaii this week for the last time.

“Some of us are dying off and some of us are getting incapacitated,” he said.

They have been meeting and swapping stories all week, and will observe an official memorial Thursday. The last reunion at Pearl Harbor was in 2001. About 650 veterans were there. This year, the number dropped to about 450, said George Sullivan, director of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund and chairman of the Arizona Memorial Museum Association.

“They’re doing this because they’re aging and the travel is difficult,” Sullivan said.

Their deeds and recollections will not be forgotten. The fund was created to raise $50 million for a new museum where oral history about the battle will be preserved for younger generations. Recordings and written histories are being collected at this week’s reunion and over the Internet.

With the attack now 65 years in the past, even local chapters of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association are folding, said Norman Lancaster, 92, treasurer of the Arlington, Va., chapter. “We feel that we’ll come to a point where there’s not enough people.”

Some survivors feel that sharing stories about the attack is a good way to ward off another sneak attack.

“We got caught with our pants down,” Soucy said. “We thought we were invincible, the most powerful nation on Earth ... and that’s what worries me now.”

The Japanese struck at 7:45 a.m. In less than two hours, nearly the entire U.S. Navy fleet in the Pacific — about 80 ships — was destroyed or disabled. Two waves of 353 Japanese aircraft took off from aircraft carriers that had arrived undetected. They hammered the military installation with torpedoes and bombs.

“The significance of this battle is that it was really the birth of the aircraft carrier being the lead ship in the Navy today,” Sullivan said. “It was no longer a surface battle from ship to ship. It now was a battle where the aircraft became the main weapon.”

Jack Evans, now 82 and living in Corcoran, Calif., had a great view of incoming enemy aircraft from his observation post in a crow’s nest on the battleship Tennessee.

A torpedo plane crossed the West Virginia and the Tennessee’s bow, at the same height as Evans.

“As he went by, the rear-seat gunner looked at me and I looked at him. He was so close I could see his eyes, and I could see his teeth, and it was just like being next door to each other,” Evans said.

He watched as the battleship West Virginia sunk to the bottom of the harbor and the battleship Oklahoma capsized. A bomb struck one of the Tennessee’s turrets and shot shrapnel into Evans’ legs. Smoke from the burning fuel oil was so thick he had to breathe through his shirt.

Lancaster, who was directing anti-aircraft fire on the light cruiser Phoenix, said he saw many men trying to get away from the smoke and the heat of burning fuel and exploding ammunition.

“They were trying to jump from that crow’s nest into the burning water,” he said. “The battleships were quite broad, and quite a few of them didn’t make it.”

Soucy, a pharmacist’s mate on the disarmed battleship Utah, swam to nearby Ford Island after torpedoes hit the Utah and calls rang out to abandon ship. He spent the rest of the day treating the wounded. Many of the injured service members were burn and bullet victims who had been pulled from the harbor.

“Most had swum through oil, some through burning oil,” he said. “They swallowed oil and dirty water, and they were vomiting and gasping for air.”

The following day, the U.S. declared war and embarked on a conflict that would span two oceans, cost a half-million American lives and end in the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

“Strategically, the Japanese made a fatal error,” Lancaster said.

Posted by admin on Wednesday 06 December 2006 - 14:22:10 | LAN_THEME_20

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