Thursday, December 07, 2000

Numbers dwindle, memories never die

Survivors bring Pearl Harbor history to life

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — For the soldiers and sailors based at Pearl Harbor 59 years ago today, Japan's surprise attack was not a radio bulletin heard on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

[photo] James B. Osborne of Dry Ridge displays his Pearl Harbor Survivors Association medallion.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        It was the deafening sound of bombs and the zinging hail of bullets aimed at them.

        In their nightmares, many Pearl Harbor survivors still hear the Japanese planes buzzing about like angry hornets. They see the oily imprints left on the grass by the rows of charred bodies lined up in the Navy Yard. And they hear the frantic shrieks of crew members in the prime of life, as they struggled to escape the oily fireballs filling the once-peaceful harbor.

        Most of the servicemen on the island of Oahu, home to the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet, were like Clermont County resident Joe Whitt. The Bethel teen had enlisted in the service out of a sense of duty and a desire to see the world.

        Like Mr. Whitt, few at Pearl Harbor had seen combat before the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

        One minute the seaman 2nd class was in his quarters on a combat ship taking guitar lessons from a Navy buddy.

Osborne in 1942
Osborne in 1942
        In the next, he had moved to the ship's fantail, where he fired a Springfield rifle at the Japanese planes “buzzing everywhere like hornets.”

        From there, he saw the USS Arizona and the USS Oklahoma explode and sink, killing more than 2,000.

        “You never forget the sounds of the explosions, and the smell of burned flesh,” said Mr. Whitt, who is now 77. “It was the first time I'd ever seen people killed and blown to bits. I was only 18, and I didn't even shave yet.”

        Mr. Whitt is among a group of 200 with a front-row seat to history who are meeting this week at the Drawbridge Inn in Fort Mitchell for the national convention of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

        Founded in 1958, the group's primary mission is to remind Americans to “remember Pearl Harbor and keep America alert.”

[photo] Leland Hellestad, 78, of Milwaukee, Wis., pauses to regain his composure while recounting his experiences at Pearl Harbor. He was on board the destroyer USS Tucker.
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        Nearly six decades after the infamous day that left nearly 3,000 military people dead or wounded and catapulted the United States into World War II, the last survivors are racing to keep their story alive.

        Once totaling more than 20,000, the number of Pearl Harbor veterans has shrunk to about 8,200, said Ed Chappell, vice president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Most of those are in their 80s.

        To ensure that their experiences are not forgotten, many in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association regularly speak to schoolchildren and other groups.

        This week, many of the veterans meeting in Fort Mitchell made videotaped accounts of their experiences. Still others held dozens of visiting Greater Cincinnati youths transfixed, as they regaled them with tales of the battle that marked the United States' entry into World War II.

        “Listening to their stories makes history much more real to the children here,” said Sharon Potts, a Walton mother of two home-schooled students.

[photo] Among those attending the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association gathering are (from left) Thomas E. Decker of Waukegan, Ill.; Morris Dailey of Highland Heights; Chester Jankowski of Swansea, Ill.; and Robert Kronberger of Big Bear City, Calif.
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        For weeks after the bombing, survivors recalled how confusion reigned.

        Because “dog tags” weren't standard issue in peacetime, few of the men killed at Pearl Harbor were wearing them.

        As a result, some families — including the parents of Harlan, Ky., sailor James T. Hamlin, a crew member of the USS California — held memorial services for their loved ones after they were mistakenly told that they had been killed in the attack.

        Weeks after Mr. Hamlin's “death,” his parents received a telegram from their son, who was unaware of the commotion the erroneous notification had caused.

        This week, convention goer Robert Kronberger, an 83-year-old veteran from Big Bear City, Calif., showed off the tattooed picture of his younger self on his forearm, complete with his service number. Mr. Kronberger got his tattoo after Pearl Harbor, as a form of identification.

    On the 59th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, reminders of that era abound:
   • Last month, political and Hollywood notables, including Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, kicked off a $100 million fund raising campaign for a World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
   • Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona memorial, which marks the watery grave of 1,177 sailors and Marines, remains one of the top tourist destinations in Hawaii, drawing more than 1.5 million visitors a year. A drive is currently under way to raise funds to double the museum's exhibit space, so that hundreds of World War II artifacts and memorabilia never seen by the general public can be brought out of storage.
   • Memorial Day 2001 will mark the release of Pearl Harbor, a movie starring Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin and Cuba Gooding Jr.

INFOGRAPHIC: Pearl Harbor the morning of the attack.

        “Back then, we were pulling parts of bodies out of the water,” said Mr. Kronberger, who had a 38-year Naval career. “No one knew who they were.”

        Others, such as Mr. Chappell, recall the sounds of men tapping out Morse code pleas for help from the hull of the capsized battleship USS Oklahoma. Struck by seven to nine torpedoes during the first 10 minutes of the attack, the Oklahoma sank, drowning 450.

        Now a resident of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., Mr. Chappell was aboard the USS Maryland, a battleship moored alongside the USS Oklahoma. The Maryland sustained minor damage.

        Today, Mr. Chappell says he's often asked by the junior and senior high school students he addresses whether he hates the Japanese.

        “I can forgive, but I can never forget,” he said.

        Thomas Decker, 81, now of Waukegan, Ill., was nursing a hangover aboard the destroyer, the USS Hull, when he heard someone shout that the Japanese were attacking.

        “At first, I couldn't believe it,” he said. “Then I looked out the porthole and saw the black smoke rolling from the Arizona, the Oklahoma and Ford Island.”

        Survivors also recalled how planes emblazoned with red suns dived so low that crews of ships moored in Pearl Harbor could see the rear gunners' gleeful expressions.

        “They were so close that if I'd had a rock, I could have hit them,” recalled Dry Ridge native James B. Osborne, 79, then a second-class gunner aboard the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship.

        Mr. Osborne, who was 20 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, entered the service at age 19, after begging his parents to sign the paperwork so that he could enlist as a minor.

        “I thought I'd see the world,” Mr. Osborne said. “Boy, did I. Before Pearl Harbor, I'd seen fights and I'd been in fights, but I'd never seen combat. It's something you never forget.”

        Morris Dailey, 79, who was in the Marine Corps barracks in the Navy Yard when the first wave of bombs fell, recalled “traffic going every which way and people running in every direction,” after the first wave of bombs hit.

        In the weeks following the raid, everyone remained on edge, because no one knew whether the Japanese would return, the Highland Heights resident said.

        “I think the one good thing that came out of it was that it unified our country,” Mr. Dailey said. “Americans said, "Let's show these people that they can't get away with this.'”

        When Mr. Dailey recalls that day, one of his most vivid memories remains the rows of charred bodies laid out on the lawn in front of the Navy Yard.

        “When they took them out of there, you could see where the bodies had laid,” he said. “There was an imprint left on the grass from the oil. That image has always stuck with me.”

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