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Pearl Harbor veterans remember how paradise suddenly turned into hell
Edward Davis still can’t believe he made it out alive.
The 90-year-old Army veteran, who has Parkinson’s disease and lives at D.C.’s Armed Forces Retirement Home, still can recall the attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago.
“I saw how easy, how fast, it is to die,” said Mr. Davis, who went on to fight in World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War.
Mr. Davis is one of an estimated 8,000 U.S. veterans of the attack still living. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans of World War II are dying at a rate of roughly 1,000 per day. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, approximately 2.5 million are still alive.
When Mr. Davis enlisted in 1940 at age 17, he was given the choice of where to serve. He chose Pearl Harbor, having heard glowing reports of the “beautiful girls and nice weather” in Hawaii, a stark contrast to his upbringing in the rugged coal region of Pennsylvania.
That decision led to his first brush with death on Dec. 7, 1941. As a young man, Mr. Davis quickly learned how fragile life can be.
The infamous Japanese sneak attack claimed the lives of nearly 2,400 servicemen and women, some of whom Mr. Davis considered friends.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen death like that. I never realized you could die so easily. It’s something that can haunt you. I never forgot.”
Mr. Davis eventually received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as “shell shock” during his days in the military. He also undergoes speech therapy sessions to blunt his worsening Parkinson’s symptoms.
To this day, he ponders why his fellow soldiers were maimed or killed, yet he returned home without physical injury.
“Three wars. I’ve been bombed, I’ve been shot at by machine guns, by airplanes, I’ve been shelled. I don’t understand why I wasn’t hit,” he said. “I never knew when I was going to go, when it was going to hit me. It could’ve happened in any of the three wars. I lived on the edge, there ain’t no doubt about it.”
Since the 1950s, Mr. Davis and others have kept their legacies alive through the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, but the group will disband at the end of the year. Its members are nearing 90 years older, and many have serious health problems.
“It was just getting to be too much for them. The youngest survivors are 88 years old,” said Carol Gladys, the daughter of a Pearl Harbor survivor and secretary of Sons and Daughters, Pearl Harbor Survivors Inc. It’s been in existence since the 1970s, but now will play a much larger role in ensuring the stories aren’t forgotten.
“I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. You walk up to a lot of younger people and ask them what the USS Arizona was, and they have no idea,” Ms. Gladys said. “The younger generation, they have no idea what happened in Hawaii.”
After the USS Arizona was hit by Japanese bombs, it sank within nine minutes. Most other damaged ships were at least partly salvaged, but much of the battleship Arizona remains on the harbor’s floor. Photographs of its destruction became some of the most lasting images of the attack that led the U.S. to enter Word War II.
Another ship, the USS West Virginia, was hit by seven torpedoes and three bombs. Harris Bircher recalls being thrown from the ship by the force of the blasts.
Shortly after the attack, the Navy reported Mr. Bircher missing in action. A funeral was held in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. He was unaware that his family and friends assumed he had been killed until days later when he was reassigned aboard the USS San Francisco.
“Later on, I got word that I’d been reported missing and that they had a funeral and all of that. I was just glad that it wasn’t for real,” said Mr. Bircher, now 92 and also living in the District’s Armed Forces Retirement Home.
As the West Virginia burned and the Arizona quickly descended into the water, chaos reigned on Oahu Island. The surprise assault destroyed many of the fighter planes stationed at the base, crippling America’s ability to fight back.
That didn’t stop Steve Krawczyk, who had been on his way to church the morning of Dec. 7, and his comrades in the Army Air Corps 22nd Materiel Squadron from grabbing rifles from a storage depot and firing at the Japanese aircraft overhead.
“It gave us the satisfaction of fighting back,” said Mr. Krawczyk, 93. “There were planes just barreling over the field with the identifying rising sun insignias. Immediately, we knew they were Japanese. And immediately we knew that we were at war. We went from peaceful existence to being blasted.”
“When the attack came, it was like going 180 degrees from a serene setting to being attacked,” Mr. Krawczyk said.
As he watched a Japanese plane heading right for him, he squeezed underneath a raised sidewalk, fearing the worst. The plane ultimately bombed a target behind him, and he escaped unharmed.
“That was as close as I ever came to being terrified,” he said.
“The thing that carried us through that raid was the fact that the service people we had at that time averaged about 19 years of age,” he said. “And it was the resiliency of youth, you might say, that carried us through that trying period.”
Other servicemen had similar experiences on the island. Pearl Harbor, they had been told, was one of the safest places for them to be.
“Maybe we were subject to our own propaganda. We were told Pearl Harbor was impregnable,” said Jay Groff, 89, who served in the Army Air Corps Rescue Boat Service and now lives in Springfield. “You couldn’t get anywhere near it. Nobody could get close to us.”
Despite the death and destruction around them, Mr. Krawczyk, Mr. Groff and others fought back. Japanese losses during the attack were light, with the Imperial Navy losing fewer then 70 men. But even with diminished firepower and compromised defenses, the young defenders of Pearl Harbor didn’t give up.
That resiliency helped Mr. Davis, Mr. Krawczyk and the entire nation to regroup to defeat Japan and its allies. Many Pearl Harbor survivors remained largely mum after the attack, often unwilling to recount the trauma they endured.
For many of them, there was simply no time to sit and reflect.
“We never talked much about Pearl Harbor. We just felt that we had to fight a war, to go back and retaliate,” said Clarence Davis, 88, who served as a mess cook in the Navy at the time of the attack but later became a radio operator. He would go on to serve on nine different ships during World War II, and retired after 20 years serving his country.
“Even for the rest of the war, I didn’t think about it,” he said of his experience at Pearl Harbor.
As time has worn on, however, Mr. Davis and others have opened up and shared their experiences.
Such harrowing stories and personal accounts have helped define the Pearl Harbor attack as more than a singular historical event. Within that event are thousands of stories, some which have not been fully told.
“There are others who haven’t talked much about it,” Ms. Gladys said. “Part of the problem is, I knew my dad was there, but I didn’t ask questions, and he didn’t come out freely and talk about it. Mostly, though, they’ve started talking as they’ve gotten older. Maybe it’s because we all kept saying, ‘Please, share with us.’ We don’t want to lose these memories. This is a part of history.”
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Ben Wolfgang covers the White House for The Washington Times.
Before joining the Times in March 2011, Ben spent four years as a political reporter at the Republican-Herald in Pottsville, Pa.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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