Friday, December 7, 2007

Pearl Harbor Remembered

The Cincinnati Post has a nice remembrance of Pearl Harbor:

Joe Whitt kept his memories of the horrors and heroics of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to himself for 35 years.

But he has been educating children, civic groups and anyone else who asks since the nation's Bicentennial in 1976. At 84, he has no intention of letting up on this 66th anniversary of the devastating surprise air assault that launched America into World War II.

"I have plenty to talk about, and I hope my story answers some of the questions in young people's minds," he said.

Whitt, who lives in Bethel, is president of the Ohio chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. He is among just 90 survivors left in Ohio among about 25,000 nationally.

"In Cincinnati, we are down to the bare bones. We have seven members. Two of them are in nursing homes," he said.

Six decades after the attack, numbers have dwindled and infirmities have hobbled many who survive, which has translated into far fewer trips to schools and other education events. The Cincinnati chapter's secretary treasurer is now Jean Adams, the widow of George Adams, a Pearl Harbor veteran who died on Dec. 7, 2004 - exactly 63 years after he witnessed the attack.

There is no one to replace George Adams as an eyewitness to history, but Mrs. Adams intends to keep his stories alive through supporting Whitt and the survivors' organization.

"It was important to my husband and so it was important to me. It's difficult for me to express. Pearl Harbor was part of our country's history, and I just think it was important for people to know what happened," Mrs. Adams said.

"The majority of the men were in their teens. My husband had just turned 19. He was a petty officer. I'm not sure young people realize what's happened and why. Without George and other men like him, I'm not sure where we would be," she said.

Whitt spoke to a pilots group at Lunken Airport Thursday night and appeared at a memorial event in New Richmond on Sunday. He can talk for hours because every detail of the attack remains fresh in his mind.

He was a seaman first class station on the USS San Francisco when the Japanese planes came. He and his mates concurred that the country was headed for war with Japan, but they figured on meeting their enemy in battle in the Philippines, where the Americans, he thought, would "clobber them in a day or two."

Instead, he was on the deck of the San Francisco, a cruiser that was docked and getting an overhaul, when the Japanese fighter planes attacked. He and all but five crewmates killed by machine gun fire were among the lucky ones because a construction crane kept the Japanese bombers from getting close enough for good shots.

"We put World War I helmets on our heads. The planes were so low you could almost hit them with a potato," he said.

Armed with a rifle, he shot at the planes as they passed by. "I had a view of the whole operation in the harbor. Big billows of black smoke and sound of guns firing. I never did see a plane dive straight down but they would come in on a heavy slant. They would come in real fast and drop those bombs and then they would pull up and roll over on a loop. The ones that dropped the big shells came in higher up," he said.

"I saw the Arizona as she blew up. It was just a tremendous explosion," he said, referring to the battleship that sank in the harbor, taking 1,177 crew members to a watery grave.

He would spend another five years in the Navy, mostly as a machine gunner.

Whitt fought in the south and north Pacific, including battles in the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

"I'm one of the few men who heard the first and last shots of the war," he said.

To adults and high school students, he tries to tell the whole story, including gruesome details of sailors eaten by sharks, the task of cleaning up body parts after an attack and other horrors.

"I try to tell them the heroics of the men, that these were young men, some of them not as old as they are. I was always on the guns fighting the Japanese, and I never saw one bit of cowardice in these young men," Whitt said.

According to Whitt's records, just one survivor remains in Northern Kentucky. That is Alvis Kinney of Highland Heights, who could not be reached for comment.

In Mount Sterling, Ky., Raymond Turley freely tells his story, though he has rarely done so in public.

He was a corporal in the Army Air Corps, a maintenance man on B-40s at Wheeler Field near Pearl Harbor.

He was having breakfast in the mess hall, preparing for a trip to Honolulu when he heard the first explosions, which he and others mistook initially for a U.S. Navy plane crash.

"We thought the Navy had cracked up one of their planes. We ran to the windows, and we saw the second bomb, and then we saw the rising sun on the wing of that plane.

He and two other soldiers began running for their barracks as Japanese planes systematically destroyed the B-40s, which were neatly lined up in two rows.

A man Turley didn't know told him to lay down near a curb to avoid machine gun fire, then instructed to run out of harm's way. He never got the stranger's name or saw him again, and Turley considers him a guardian angel.

Turley isn't confident that the drama of that day will be remembered when he's gone.

"I've got a Pearl Harbor survivor tag on my vehicle and very seldom does anyone say anything about it," he said. "I think most have pretty well forgotten about it, but I hope not because we laid our lives out many times."

Whitt knows the time of eyewitness accounts of Pearl Harbor and the ensuing war in the Pacific won't last forever, but he hopes their stories will.

"The only thing we can hope for is like the Civil war battles. I hope they keep it in the proper context where they tell it like it really was and not like Hollywood. The heroes were the men that we buried at sea. The thousands, and thousands killed in battle," he said.

The Los Angeles Times also has a story on Pearl Harbor survivors, "Pearl Harbor Lives in Hearts of Its Vets."

See more stories, here.


UPDATE: Via Hammering Sparks From the Anvil, check out this Pearl Harbor YouTube:

The video draws on clips from Touchstone's 2001 motion picture, "Pearl Harbor."