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Remember Pearl Harbor

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They’ve urged us to ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’ But what happens when the survivors are gone?

Stu Hedley, then 94, salutes during the National Anthem during Balboa Park's Veterans Museum Spirit of '45 Day in 2016.
Stu Hedley, then 94, salutes during the National Anthem during Balboa Park’s Veterans Museum Spirit of ’45 Day in 2016. Hedley was the president of the San Diego Pearl Harbor Association. He died in 2021.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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.
At the final board meeting of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association
At the final board meeting of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Carnation Chapter 3, Treasurer, Kathy Tinsley, left, and Nancy Evans, right, the secretary, sit next to Stuart Hedley, 97, center, president of the group, as he recites the invocation on Sept. 21, 2019.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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.
In this Dec. 7, 1941, file photo, smoke rises from the battleship Arizona as it sinks
In this Dec. 7, 1941, file photo, smoke rises from the battleship Arizona as it sinks during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
(Associated Press)

Sharing their stories

The survivors in San Diego never got tired of telling their stories. They realized a long time ago that stories were what people wanted to hear. So Stu Hedley (died 2021, age 99) would talk about his harrowing escape from the battleship West Virginia after an explosion tore through the gun turret where he was stationed, killing a dozen of his shipmates. He swam to shore under and around flaming oil, then dodged shattering glass and flying shrapnel during a second wave of Japanese strafing. Ray Chavez (d. 2018, age 106) would talk about how his ship, the minesweeper Condor, was on patrol near the entrance to the harbor and saw what looked like an enemy periscope. The call went out: “We got company here.” The periscope disappeared, and four hours later the attack started. Clayton Schenkelberg (d. 2021, age 103) would talk about how he was at a submarine base when the Japanese planes arrived and everybody realized how dangerous it was to be standing near a train loaded with torpedoes. Somebody needed to move the train. Schenkelberg volunteered. They weren’t bragging. They cringed if you called them heroes. In their minds, the heroes were the 2,400 Americans killed in the attack.
Members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association toss flowers into Oceanside Harbor in 2004
Members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association toss flowers into Oceanside Harbor in 2004 during a ceremony honoring those who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
(U-T file)
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.
Pearl Harbor Survivor Ted Roosvall, age 86, of San Marcos, looks at rememberance plaque
Pearl Harbor Survivor Ted Roosvall, age 86, of San Marcos, looks at remembrance plaque in the Oceanside Harbor dedicated for local Chapter 31 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association members in 2006.
(U-T file)

Handshakes and selfies

What is that “special place” in American hearts, and how long will Pearl Harbor stay there? Watching the local survivors over the years (this reporter has written about them dozens of times since the late 1990s), the reverence that greeted them was remarkable. John Finn (d. 2010, age 100), the Medal of Honor recipient, stopped conversations and turned heads whenever he walked into a room, even ones occupied by admirals and other Navy brass. At the 75th commemoration ceremony of the attack in Hawaii in 2016, Ray Chavez — 104 at the time, the oldest known survivor — had a line of people waiting to shake his hand and pose for selfies. Stu Hedley and others on hand for the anniversary got stopped wherever they went by similar adoration.
David Ybarra, left, and his 6-year-old daughter, Mia Rose Ybarra, look at Pearl Harbor memorabilia
David Ybarra, left, and his 6-year-old daughter, Mia Rose Ybarra, look at Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Carnation Chapter 3, memorabilia, on display at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in La Mesa in 2019. The luncheon included a board meeting, where it was announced that the chapter would be discontinued.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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.
Kathleen Chavez, the daughter of the late Pearl Harbor attack Ray Chavez, salutes
Kathleen Chavez, the daughter of the late Pearl Harbor attack Ray Chavez, salutes during missing man formation fly-over during a commemoration ceremony for the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on the deck of the USS Midway Museum in 2021.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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.
World War II veteran Fremont "Cap" Sawade is photographed with a poem carved on wood
World War II veteran Fremont “Cap” Sawade, 91 and blind, is photographed in 2012 in his Rancho Bernardo living room with the poem he wrote when he was 19, just days after the Pearl Harbor attack. The poem is titled, “It Was… The Fateful Day.”
(Charlie Neuman/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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.”
Members of The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association walk down a hall
Members of The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association walk down a hall at the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego at the conclusion of a memorial service for Frank Ambler, a Pearl Harbor survivor who died on Oct. 31, 2021. Most of the survivors are now gone, too.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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