Final Hawaii Reunion For Pearl Harbor Veterans

December 8th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Final Hawaii Reunion For Pearl Harbor Veterans

New York Times
December 8, 2006
Pg. 22

By Jesse McKinley
PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii, Dec. 7 — Since that terrible morning 65 years ago, the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor have been called heroes, V.I.P.’s of the greatest generation, and the first American witnesses to the last world war. But more and more, the members of this exclusive group are being called something else: endangered.
With age and aching joints slowing even the most hardy of old sailors, marines and airmen, the major national survivors group has decided this year’s anniversary gathering will be its last in Hawaii.
“We’re getting about as extinct as the dodo bird,” said Mal Middlesworth, the president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which traditionally meets here every five years. “The way it’s going, our next national convention here we could hold in a phone booth.”
Mr. Middlesworth, 83, who watched the attack from the deck of the heavy cruiser San Francisco, said much of his membership of 4,600 survivors had simply become too old to travel great distances. “There’s a lot of people in wheelchairs and in walkers,” he said. “And we don’t have any replacement troops.”
But if they’re going, they’re going with a bang. Organizers said the crowd at Thursday’s commemoration on the harbor, called “the Last Reunion,” was one of the largest in years, with more than 3,000 spectators, double the number expected, some of whom camped out well before dawn to enter.
That number included about 400 survivors, decked out in naval hats, campaign ribbons and medals. Many survivors brought several generations of family. “A lot of the families are coming just to bring grandpa,” Mr. Middlesworth said. “And they need everyone there to help them get around.”
Stephen Yorden, 86, made the trip from suburban Philadelphia with his two daughters, his granddaughter and a grandson. Mr. Yorden, who was a shipfitter on the destroyer Dewey when the attack began and who only recently retired from a career in construction, said his reasons for coming this year were simple.
“I’m getting tired: the old bones don’t jump no more,” he said, explaining that he had been slowed by a bad back. “And I figured I may as well get rid of some money before I have to give it to Uncle Sam.”
Academics and historians also crowded the island of Oahu this week, as part of a weeklong symposium tied to the anniversary of the early-morning sneak attack in which 2,338 service members and civilians died and 21 warships were sunk or destroyed. Topics and events included a discussion of the Japanese perspective on the attacks and a re-creation of a Dec. 6, 1941, jitterbug competition featuring the same dancers, Pat Thompson and Jack Evans, who won that night. This time around, their routine was shorter, slower, but undeniably sweeter.
Daniel A. Martinez, a historian with the National Park Service here in Honolulu, drew a comparison between this year’s Pearl Harbor ceremony and a gathering of about 2,000 Civil War veterans in 1938 at Gettysburg, Pa., that was considered that group’s last hurrah.
“This is literally an organization that’s facing its own mortality,” Mr. Martinez said. “That makes it not only a very difficult trip physically, but emotionally.”
The tears in A. M. Geiger’s eyes confirmed that. Mr. Geiger, 85, traveled here from Buford, S.C., with his daughter, Janice, who came from Tampa.
On the morning of the attacks, Mr. Geiger was enjoying a cup of coffee when a Japanese shell tore through the kitchen of the building where he was on Ford Island.
He came to this year’s ceremony to donate an American flag he found that afternoon, and he welled up at the thought of never returning to Pearl Harbor.
“Don’t talk about that,” said Mr. Geiger, who walks with a cane and wears a pacemaker. “I don’t have any friends left.”
Many of the old sailors were still more salty than sad.
Mel Fisher, 84, a former engineer on the destroyer-tender Whitney who recalls being blown out of his bunk on the morning of the attacks, was here with four generations of his family.
“I’m trying to get away from them,” Mr. Fisher said, smiling at his 18-year-old granddaughter, Kate.
Mr. Fisher said five members of his local chapter of Pearl Harbor survivors in Northern California had died in the last year. “We have a luncheon once a month,” he said. “If I can get seven of them vertical, that’s a good day. Restaurants don’t want us to come anymore, because we don’t drink anymore.”
Still, he said he was looking forward to trying to track down some old crewmates, though he said it was not always easy.
“For some reason, they look different,” Mr. Fisher said. “Their hair is goofy, and a lot of them limp.”
The shrinking corps of Pearl Harbor survivors, which Mr. Middlesworth estimated at 6,000, mirrors an overall winnowing of World War II veterans. As of September, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 3.2 million American World War II veterans were still alive. But by Pearl Harbor’s 80th anniversary in 2021, the department estimates, the number of World War II veterans will have shrunk to 158,000.
Mr. Middlesworth said many veterans welcomed this anniversary as a last opportunity to show their families what they had endured that day. That included Mr. Middlesworth himself, who was an 18-year-old marine when he saw Japanese torpedo planes buzzing over the fantail of his ship.
“We didn’t have any fuel or ammunition because we were in for service, and I didn’t think my .45 would do any good, so I stood and watched,” recalled Mr. Middlesworth, who now lives in Upland, Calif.
“But I saw the Oklahoma roll over, and I saw the Arizona blow up,” he said, referring to two battleships destroyed that day. “I looked over, and the officer of the deck had tears running down his cheeks. But it was too much for my mind to understand.”
His grandson recently asked him about the attacks, Mr. Middlesworth said. When he began to talk, his son sat down. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Mr. Middlesworth recalled. “And he said, ‘Dad, you’ve never told me anything about what you saw.’ ”
The survivors group plans to continue to hold national conventions every two years, but will keep the events on the mainland. That will not, of course, keep some veterans from coming to Hawaii for the memories and in honor of the men who did not survive.
“You never get over it: I’ve been crying,” said Haile Jaekel, 82, who served on the heavy cruiser Salt Lake City and lost friends that day. “But I’m going to keep coming till I drop.”
December 8th, 2006  
I still remember very vividly the first Pearl Harbor Vet I met. I was with my grandpa at the VFW in Hayward back in the late 70's and this man walked in and my grandpa jumped up and smacked me to do the same and offered this man our seats. My grandpa was a hard man if you werent a member of our family and this struck me as odd. As we sat down at another table he just looked at me and said, "That man was at Pearl Harbor". That was all that needed to be said.
December 8th, 2006  
Well lets hope some of them keep going for many a year yet, when you think of it we still have a handful of WW1 vets knocking about so there should be some mileage left in these grand old fellas
December 11th, 2006  
Rob Henderson
But we'll still hold anniversary memorials right?!
December 11th, 2006  
Yeah, but it's different when the folks that were there aren't around any more.

Damn, if I'd known, I would have tried to get down there myself.

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