As final survivors die, memorials, grave sites, Navy ships and shared stories will be reminders of attack that pushed U.S. into World War II. Especially in San Diego.
Almost all of them are gone now, the U.S. service members who were at Pearl Harbor when the world changed, 81 years ago today. After surviving the surprise aerial attack by Japan and World War II that followed, they became persistent voices of courage and conscience. “Remember Pearl Harbor,” they said in word and deed. “Keep America alert.” Now that cry has been muffled by the passage of time. Some 50,000 U.S. service members were in and around Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, and no one knows for sure how many — all nearing or past 100 years old now — are left.Today, for the second year in a row, no survivors are expected at the annual Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremony on board the USS Midway Museum. There used to be dozens. But San Diego County is uniquely positioned to carry on. Other than the hallowed ground in Hawaii where ships were sunk and airplanes destroyed, few places in America have embraced the memory and meaning of Pearl Harbor the way this one has. This is where the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association had what was believed to be its largest chapter, almost 600 members. The veterans went to local schools, service clubs, libraries and churches almost 134,00 times over the years to talk about the attack and its aftermath. When it closed in 2019, outlasting the national organization by eight years, it was believed to be the only chapter still operating.This, too, is where memorials for the attack and those killed in it can be found in three different cities: San Diego, Escondido and Oceanside. More than a dozen of the victims are at their final rest in local cemeteries.And this is where two Navy ships with ties to that fateful day are home-ported. One is the guided-missile destroyer John Finn, named after a longtime Pine Valley resident whose valor at Kaneohe Bay — shooting at Japanese planes with a machine gun for more than two hours despite being wounded 20 times — brought him the Medal of Honor. The other is the dock landing ship Pearl Harbor. For a long time, military leaders resisted the idea of naming a vessel after the attack. They don’t like highlighting battles they lost. But for 15 years, local survivors kept up the pressure. One of them, Gordon Jones, who had also been at Kaneohe Bay, wrote more than 60 letters himself. Jones, who died in 2018 at age 96, stressed that the core message of Pearl Harbor isn’t that the United States got knocked down — it’s that the country got up, united a citizenry battered by the Great Depression, and transformed itself through four years of war in Europe and the Pacific into a global superpower. The ship was launched in 1996 and commissioned two years later. Its shield includes a drawing of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The crest features a bird emerging from bright orange flames. It’s a phoenix, from ancient mythology, rising from the ashes.It took a while for them to start talking, though. For the 2016 book, “Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness,” New York writer Craig Nelson and his research team pored through archives of oral histories about the attack. They found almost nothing with any specific detail from when the veterans were interviewed in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. “They were traumatized, but PTSD was something you just got over,” Nelson told the Union-Tribune in an interview after the book was published. “You got on with your life.” Gradually the survivors opened up as they gathered for reunions and formed local associations. They came to know each other not just by name, but by where they were that morning. It wasn’t Sam Jones; it was Sam Jones, battleship Oklahoma. They arranged themselves on the stage of a drama they knew all too well. That made it easier for them to talk about how the Japanese bullets clanged off metal and sizzled through water. What the mixture of burning oil and flesh smelled like. How shocking it was, in the days after, to walk by boxes marked “Body Parts.” And how lucky they felt to come home. When they went out into the community, to schools and to military ceremonies and to civic groups, they became instantly recognizable by their uniforms of Hawaiian shirts and white slacks. The shirts represented where they were on Dec. 7, 1941. The pants spoke to the innocence of those who died in a war they didn’t even know had started. “It could easily be said that Pearl Harbor would not today hold the special place it does in American hearts if not for their efforts,” Nelson wrote.Hedley was fond of telling people in his public appearances (he spoke by his count to more than 200,000 people over the years) that Pearl Harbor “wasn’t a defeat, it was an eye-opener.”Roused from its slumber, America became something it’s rarely been since: united. It was Victory Gardens and war bonds and factories staffed by Rosie the Riveters. In his book, Nelson argues that the nation we live in today wasn’t born on the Fourth of July, but at Pearl Harbor. Hedley believed that was why people in airports, at parades and elsewhere treated him and the others like rock stars. They were reminders of that earlier solidarity, that earlier phoenix rising from the ashes. Now that most of the survivors are gone, their children are stepping forward to carry the torch of remembrance. At last year’s ceremony on the Midway Museum, when for the first time in two decades no survivors were present, Chavez’s daughter, Schenkelberg’s son and a handful of other relatives took on the honor that used to fall to their fathers: tossing a commemorative wreath into the water from the flight deck. Many of the survivors wondered in their final years if they had done enough to make people “Remember Pearl Harbor.” They would look at the high school history textbooks their grandchildren had and grumble about how little ink was devoted to the attack.But sometimes they knew that they made a difference. Fremont “Cap” Sawade (d. 2016, age 95) was stationed at Camp Malakole, an Army anti-aircraft training facility, when the Japanese planes swooped in. Two days later he sat down and wrote a poem, which he called “The Fateful Day.” It captures the surprise, horror, anger and thirst for vengeance that many felt. It was his first and only poem, and he quickly put it away. After the war, back home in San Diego, he didn’t show it to anybody for 25 years, until he was with friends at a survivors association meeting. In 2012, he shared it with his son-in-law, who reproduced the poem on a wooden plaque and donated it to the World War II Museum in New Orleans.A story about the poem on the Union-Tribune’s website caught the eye of a sixth-grade teacher in Alabama. She was looking for ways to help her 11- and 12-year-old students connect with the emotion of Pearl Harbor.The students loved the poem. They wanted to know more about Sawade and what he’d experienced. Letters were exchanged. He sent the teacher a framed black-and-white photo of himself in uniform. “My goal was to make sure our nation would never forget what happened there and how it changed the world forever,” Sawade wrote. “Your beautiful letters have made me feel that I achieved that goal and I will always be very grateful to each and all of you for that.” After he died, the teacher continued to use the poem in her class. She kept the photo of Sawade on her desk, where students arriving for the first day of a new year could see it. They asked who the soldier was. “Just wait,” she told them. “You’ll learn.”