- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs are about to learn a lot more about the contributions of the war veterans whom the agency serves.

A program commemorating Pearl Harbor Day, to be sponsored December 7 by the department, is only the first of several planned to help VA workers better understand the historical role of veterans.

"We know veterans well in terms of their issues and their needs," said Ivonne McDowell, the VA's director of public affairs for national programs and special events. "But one female employee in the department thought some employees might not know enough about the history."

The reason? The relative youth of many agency employees.

"So on December 7, we're bringing three veterans of Pearl Harbor here to talk to employees and tell them what went on," Mrs. McDowell said yesterday.

Workers will hear how the U.S. naval base in Hawaii came under a devastating surprise attack by 360 Japanese planes 61 years ago that day, plunging the nation into World War II. The attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet sank or severely damaged 18 ships, wrecked nearly 200 planes and caused about 3,700 American casualties.

Julius Finnern, 83, of Menomonee Falls, Wis., a former national secretary of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said he speaks about his experiences whenever asked. His organization's constitution calls for "keeping the memory of Pearl Harbor alive," he said.

Mr. Finnern was a Navy fireman aboard the USS Monahan the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

"A Japanese sub fired two torpedoes at us, but they missed," he recalls. "The Monahan rammed the sub and dropped two 500-pound depth charges on it and disposed of it."

Many young Americans know little military history, Mr. Finnern said, recalling a speech to a sixth-grade class in which no one knew that Pearl Harbor is a naval base. The first student he called on said it was in Bermuda.

No more than 150 of the VA's 220,000 employees can fit into the room at the agency's Washington headquarters where the Pearl Harbor veterans will reminisce. But the program will be carried live by satellite hookup to approximately 1,000 VA facilities nationwide, including hospitals, regional offices and cemeteries.

One speaker will be a retired Army nurse who received the Bronze Star, Mrs. McDowell said, but other speakers have not been confirmed.

"World War II veterans are pretty elderly. We have to make sure the people selected can stand for an hour and be comfortable that they can physically do it," she said.

The Pearl Harbor Day program will lead off a 12-episode television production designed to acquaint VA employees with the role of veterans in past U.S. military conflicts.

Future shows will be taped, Mrs. McDowell said.

"We'll call on all five branches of the military and will feature veterans of a variety of different racial and ethnic backgrounds," the VA spokeswoman said.

One episode likely will focus on World War I. And given that 500 veterans of that war, which ended 84 years ago, currently receive VA benefits, Mrs. McDowell is confident one or more will be available for the telecast. But if none is well enough to appear on camera, family members will be asked to stand in.

An anesthesiologist pummeled Mr. Finnern with questions about Pearl Harbor when the former Navy fireman underwent surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome some years ago at a Wisconsin hospital. The doctor elected not to put Mr. Finnern under so he could answer.

"I gave him a history lesson that day," Mr. Finnern said.

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